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Authors: Barbara Erskine

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BOOK: The Darkest Hour
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At last she heard footsteps approaching. As the door opened she found herself momentarily thrown by the appearance not of the elderly woman she had been expecting, but of a tall man in his mid-thirties. His hair was a dark blond, severely brushed back from a deep forehead, his eyes a clear dusky blue, full of suspicion now, though they betrayed laughter lines at the outer corners. Most unexpectedly of all, given the rural location, he was formally dressed in a dark blue suit and a tie.

‘I’m sorry.’ She took a step back. ‘Have I come to the wrong address? I was looking for Evelyn Lucas’s cottage.’ She knew it was the right address and now she guessed who this was.

‘No, this is the right place.’ He waited. ‘How can I help you?’ His tone was not encouraging.

‘I spoke to a lady. Mrs Davis? She was expecting me.’

‘Ah.’ He gave her an austere smile. ‘My housekeeper. She has gone home I’m afraid.’

Lucy could feel an overwhelming sense of disappointment beginning to drown her excitement. It had taken a lot of persuasion to get Mrs Davis to agree to let her come over and see the house. ‘We are not open to the public, you know,’ she had said down the phone, her soft Sussex accent gentle but nevertheless determined. ‘The owner, he doesn’t like people coming any more. I’m sorry.’

Sensing it was not the moment to talk about detailed research or the production of a book Lucy had merely described herself as an art student, deeply involved in studying Evelyn’s work. ‘I would so love to see where she painted,’ she had said. ‘I am sorry. I had understood you allowed people access to her studio.’

On the phone her conversation with Mrs Davis had ground to a halt at that point. And there had been a few moments silence. ‘That was before Mr Michael moved in,’ Dolly Davis had said at last. ‘He doesn’t want people poking around here. This is his home now, you see.’

‘Mr Michael?’ Lucy had felt at a sudden disadvantage. Should she know who he was?

Mrs Davis had provided the information without the need of further questioning. ‘He is Evie Lucas’s grandson. He inherited the cottage when his father died. Before that they did allow study groups here from time to time, you’re right, but Mr Michael, he likes his privacy.’

‘But surely, this is a place of national importance. He can’t just refuse to let people see it,’ Lucy said, with some indignation, perhaps betraying more vehemence than she realised.

They had talked for several minutes before at last Mrs Davis had agreed to allow her to visit the studio the following Friday afternoon. ‘Only a quick peep, you understand,’ she had said as they hung up. ‘I wouldn’t want Mr Michael to be upset.’

Mr Michael, it appeared, was only using the place at weekends. He lived and worked in London and should have returned there, but now here he was standing in front of her and he showed every sign of being if not upset then at least angry and intransigent.

She became aware suddenly that he was waiting for her to say something. This might be her last chance. On the other hand, she didn’t want to antagonise him, or to get Mrs Davis into trouble. Playing for time she held out her hand. ‘How do you do. I am Lucy Standish.’

Taken aback he hesitated for a moment before he took her hand and shook it. ‘Michael Marston,’ he said gravely. He had a strong handshake; he did not smile. Again he waited.

She found herself suddenly wishing she had taken more care with her appearance before leaving home. Her hair was scraped back as usual, held in an unsophisticated ponytail by a rubber band, she was wearing no make-up and she was dressed in a shirt and jeans. She gave a small audible sigh. ‘OK, I give up. I am so sorry. I don’t want to get your housekeeper into trouble. It’s all my fault. I somehow managed to persuade her to let me have a quick look at Evelyn’s, that is, your grandmother’s, studio. I have been studying her work and it would mean so much to me. She, that is your housekeeper, explained that it is no longer open to the public and I can quite understand that. I am truly sorry.’ She was rattling on and she knew it. Shaking her head she turned away. ‘I am sorry. I will go. Of course, I will go. Please don’t be angry with her. She is so proud of Evelyn and she understood how I felt. I didn’t mean to intrude.’

‘Stop!’

Michael Marston had folded his arms during her anguished soliloquy. He shook his head slowly. ‘Do you ever let anyone else get a word in edgeways? No wonder you talked your way under Dolly’s guard.’

Lucy bit her lip. ‘I’m sorry.’ He was making her feel like a small child.

‘Stop apologising.’ He smiled at last. It lit his face but it also betrayed how exhausted he looked. ‘I am sure that just this once I could make an exception and allow you to come in as you’ve come all this way. I wasn’t expecting I would be here this afternoon, and obviously neither was Dolly. No wonder she was so reluctant to leave me here and take the time off.’ He stood back and beckoned her to follow him into the shadowy hallway. ‘Please follow me. What did you say your name was?’

Repeating her name, Lucy followed him into a long low living room. With windows back and front open onto the garden the whole place smelled of newly cut grass and roses. She stared round in delight. ‘This is lovely.’

‘Indeed. She adored this place. She could never be persuaded to move once she found Rosebank Cottage.’

‘She painted this room, didn’t she? As a backdrop to some of her best portraits.’

He nodded. ‘And got slated by the critics for it. Too chocolate box like some of her wartime pictures, but as you probably know, that wasn’t really her style.’ He made his way between an easy chair and a sofa, placed on either side of an open fireplace, heading towards the French doors which led out into the back garden. Lucy glanced at the hearth. It was empty now save for an arrangement of dried flowers.

He led the way outside and up some narrow mossy steps into the upper garden and towards the building which Lucy had already guessed was the studio. Built of timber framing, infilled with dark red brick, it was single storey but with a high-pitched roof, tiled like the house but with skylights on the north-facing pitch to add to the light from the large windows. The walls were curtained with wisteria and roses.

Groping in his pocket Michael Marston produced a key-ring and inserted one of the keys into the door. He moved aside and waved her in ahead of him. She stepped over the threshold with bated breath instantly forgetting him as she took in the large high-ceilinged room in which she found herself. Though Evelyn had been dead for many years it was as if she had just walked out for a few minutes. Her brushes and palette knives were lying on the table near her easel with a selection of squeezed tubes of oil paint. As Lucy took a step or two closer she saw that they were dried up and split, but she could still smell the linseed oil, the turpentine. She squinted at the painting on the easel and realised with sudden disappointment that it was a print of one of Evelyn’s best-known works, the one which currently hung in Tate Britain. Slowly she began to walk round the room. On the large paint-stained wooden table several sketchbooks lay open. She went closer to look. Two of the walls were lined with shelves still laden with tins and boxes and rolls of paper. Several canvasses were stacked against one wall and more paintings hung on the other walls.

‘None of them are originals, I’m afraid.’ Michael Marston’s voice came from the doorway. She had actually forgotten he was there.

She turned towards him. ‘It is wonderful. It still retains so much atmosphere. As if she had just this minute left.’

He gave a faint smile. He had loosened his tie, she noticed, and undone the top button of his shirt. It made him look marginally more relaxed. ‘She was like that. She had a powerful personality.’

‘Do you remember her?’

He nodded. ‘Very well!’

‘You must miss her.’

‘It would be strange if I didn’t. She was my grandmother.’ He folded his arms. ‘If you’ve seen enough –’ He was clearly impatient for her to go.

She felt a pang of dismay. Not already. She hadn’t seen nearly enough. She gave him a faint smile. ‘Of course, I’m sorry. I’ll leave now.’ She paused for a moment, wondering if she dare ask if she could take some photos or even if she could come again. ‘I don’t suppose,’ she hesitated again. ‘I don’t suppose I could come back some other time when it is more convenient?’

He was heading for the door. She had a fraction of a second to make up her mind, to tell him now honestly why she was there. She had to tell him something if she wanted his co-operation but was now, when he was tired and impatient, the time to speak to him? He had turned back and was watching her, she realised, a spark of interest in his gaze for the first time.

‘Could I explain why I’m here?’ she said at last. ‘There is a specific reason for my interest. I know you want me out of your hair. It will only take a minute, I promise.’ She hoped she didn’t sound as though she was wheedling.

He leaned against the doorframe, his arms still folded. ‘Go on.’

‘I am an art historian by training. I am particularly interested in women war artists. People like Dame Laura Knight, Dorothy Coke, Mary Kessell and, of course, Evelyn Lucas. She was special because she came from Sussex and she was here during the Battle of Britain, and of course most if not all of the artists who painted the action were men; I’m compiling a catalogue of her work and I would love to find out more about her. I want to write a book about her.’ She fell silent, watching his face.

‘You’re working on your PhD?’

He sounded faintly patronising.

She smiled. ‘I have my PhD.’

She felt an altogether unworthy flicker of triumph as he acknowledged his mistake with a slight nod of the head.

‘This is a project for a full-length biography,’ she added.

He said nothing for a while, frowning, then, ‘My grandmother was a very private person. She didn’t want people poking into her personal affairs.’

‘I can understand that.’ Lucy dropped her bag at her feet and perched on the edge of the table. She leaned forward slightly, unaware that the open-necked shirt with its rolled-up sleeves was alluring in its own understated way, as was the eagerness in her expression. ‘But would she mind now? After all, your father opened this place to the public. He can’t have thought she would object all that much or he wouldn’t have done that, would he?’

‘True.’ He shifted slightly. ‘I took the decision to close it because I valued my privacy. I’m more like her than my father was. Besides, he never lived here full time. That was why she left it to me. He kept an eye on it, and, yes, allowed people here, but after he died I decided to use it as a weekend cottage. I didn’t want strangers here any more.’

‘I wouldn’t get in your way.’

He was watching her. He looked distinctly uncomfortable. ‘Are you a painter yourself?’ he asked eventually.

She shook her head. ‘I’m a writer. A historian. My husband and I run, ran, an art gallery in Chichester.’

‘Ran?’ He had noticed the change of tense.

‘I suppose I still do. He was killed in a car crash three months ago.’

She was surprised to find she could say it without faltering.

‘I’m sorry.’ He pushed himself away from the door and seizing his tie, pulled it off. ‘So you haven’t come a long way after all.’

‘I didn’t actually say I had,’ she remonstrated gently.

He gave a wry smile. ‘No, you didn’t. Sorry. You had better come inside the house.’ He was coiling the tie round his fist. Turning, he led the way out into the garden.

Picking up her bag she followed him and waited while he locked the door behind them. As they retraced their steps into the cottage and through the living room Lucy smiled at him uncomfortably.

‘I am really sorry to have intruded on your afternoon off. I was going to write to you once I had spoken to Mrs Davis and seen the studio.’

He dumped the tie on the bookshelf. The room had a homely, old-fashioned feel; at a guess, there was no woman in his life apart from the doubty Mrs Davis.

‘And you were hoping, presumably, that I will have lots of information about Evie to fill out your project for you.’

She pulled a face. ‘I’m not asking you to write it for me, but obviously I would be very grateful for any pointers. As I said, apart from old exhibition catalogues there doesn’t seem to be much out there. Even the Tate doesn’t appear to know anything beyond her dates.’

‘Perhaps it is a pointless exercise. Perhaps there is nothing.’

‘There has to be something.’ She heard a hint of desperation in her own voice. Its intensity surprised her. ‘Her paintings must have a history behind them. The Battle of Britain series is iconic. The pictures of the airfield at Westhampnett, the Spitfires. Not really a woman’s subject.’

‘Ah well, that’s easily explained. Her brother, Ralph,’ he pronounced it Rafe, ‘my great-uncle, was a fighter pilot in a Spitfire squadron.’

‘I see. I didn’t know even that.’ Lucy felt a wave of disappointment. It was likely then, that the young man in the portrait was Evelyn’s brother. Somehow, already in her own mind, he was her lover, a source of mystery and romance, just as in her own mind there was now no real doubt as to the picture’s provenance. Evelyn’s story had caught her imagination in a way it had failed to before. At the beginning it had been of more academic interest, now, since she had seen the young man with his hand on her shoulder, and since seeing her studio and her home, Evelyn had become real to her.

She still hadn’t mentioned the portrait to Michael, she realised. The fact that she owned a possible Lucas original was crucial; it had been the reason behind the decision to research Evelyn’s life, to find out where the picture fitted into her oeuvre, to date it and, since she had uncovered him, to identify the young man with his hand so affectionately on her shoulder.

‘Did she live here during the war?’ Lucy sat down uninvited on the arm of the sofa by the window. She felt more comfortable with her host now, more relaxed. His initial suspicion of her seemed to have lessened.

He shook his head. ‘She still lived at home with her parents during the war. Her father was a farmer over near Goodwood. She inherited the farm after they died, then she sold up and bought this place. I can give you the address of the farm if you like, then you can go and pester them.’ His smile compensated slightly for the harshness of the words. He glanced at his watch and gave an exclamation of dismay. ‘I’m sorry. I do have to get on. I’m expecting someone. If you would like to give me your address and contact details I will get in touch with some suggestions about where you could start your research if I think of anything.’

BOOK: The Darkest Hour
10.75Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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