The Governor’s Lady

IT should have been a perfect evening for Estelle, wife of the new Governor of the Colony of Victoria. There was no talk of rabbits, Mr Lalor had been charming and none of the men had made foolish jokes about the university’s decision to permit female students. The world seemed to be making progress. And then with utter spitefulness, a haughty, loud voice had exclaimed:

‘Good family! Pfaugh, nonsense. Married beneath him, didn’t he! An old man’s fancy, that’s what that gal is!’. It was spoken just behind Estelle.

Such spite from an elderly woman hard of hearing could have been aimed at several ladies at the reception, but what set this slanderous bullet straight on target was the foolishness of the woman’s daughter, who tried with the best of intentions to send her mother a silent message.

‘What?’ yelled the ninety-year-old in tones that would have reached the Dandenong Hills. ‘Why are you waving at me like that, Sybil? What, what? Speak up, gal, I can’t hear a blessed thing you are saying.’

Ladies at such times have no control over their skin and poor Estelle turned an ill red against her low cut vieux rose satin. This proclaimed to everyone within earshot that the words had wounded her and an embarrassed hush eddied out from the ladies behind her.

Now what could she do with her face burning so? Graciously pretend she hadn’t heard when everyone in the ballroom at Government House had turned their faces towards her? They were waiting for her to decide whether to rebuke the old lady or withdraw in a huff. She was still uncertain what to do when suddenly, across by the fireplace, one of the gentlemen exclaimed, ‘Good Lord, weren’t there two vases just now?’

‘WHEN that gallant young man drew the attention from you, you should have let the matter drop, Estelle,’ her new friend, Cassie, the Attorney-General’s daughter, commented as they rode together next afternoon.

‘Take it on the chin, Cassie? No, why should I? That vindictive old shrew said it deliberately.’

‘But Estelle, it’s the price we pay for being part of the beau monde. I know some people’s vulgar manners were bequeathed by convict ancestors but you should not have said so. Not in Melbourne. Your words were repeated across the bridge tables this morning, I can tell you.’

‘Never mind, Cassie. I’m learning my lesson. Edward has suggested I disappear from the city for a few weeks until the tabbies stopped miaowing. I’m to be exiled to Queenscliff.’

‘STAYING long, ma’am?’

‘I am not certain.’ Estelle stepped off the ferry from Sorrento and smoothed her black skirts against the skittish wind. The solid broad timbers felt comfortably solid beneath her leather soles and she took a deep breath of air — of freedom! Freedom from the envious eyes that watched for the unfastened button, and the carelessly dropped phrase. Except she had not dropped her phrases, she had hurled them at the old trout, and now she was here to lick her wounds. Of course, it was just a storm in a colonial teacup, but even her husband had wanted her forgotten for a few weeks while society swept up the feathers.

Carrying her one portmanteau, she walked, veiled and resolute, through the straggle of passengers waiting to board. A few fishermen untidied the jetty but only one observed her passing. His smile, the happiness of a gentleman stripped to his shirt enjoying the sun, curiously stayed with her as she crossed the bare sand that gartered the jetty. Already the salty air was working its cleansing enchantment.

‘Mrs Bramshall,’ she wrote in the hotel register, delighting in the glimpse of open fire, the profusion of flowers in the hall. It was a relief not to be recognised for the genteel jet jewellery, the merest touch of white, the black silk jacket with weeper cuffs, and the crape veil, all borrowed from Cassie (now in her second marriage) proclaimed Estelle at least a two-year widow. She sensed the clerk’s stare at her bustle and hem as she mounted the staircase; he was looking for the lack of black frilled underskirts and plain black stockings which usually hinted at some seaside assignation but Estelle’s mourning clothes left nothing to chance.

The maid showing her up to the turret room with its high brass bed and iron bedstep asked:

‘Staying long, ma’am?’

‘I’m not sure yet.’

THE fisherman from yesterday was out walking next morning as Estelle stood in solitude watching the wading birds. She had thrown the tiresome veil back but there was no time to drag it down. Below the oblique lift of straw hat, the gentleman’s smile ebbed suddenly.

There had been talk at the hotel of a hack from the city visiting the resort but although this gentleman did not look like a journalist, neither the Governor’s Lady nor the pretend widow could take the risk, so next morning, she set out earlier and was careful to observe the birds utterly.

He didn’t.

‘Would you look at the black swans grazing out there,’ his voice remarked from behind her — assertive and perilous. ‘Not a care in the world. Not even a Russian invasion fleet in sight.’

‘They are most fortunate. The swans, I mean.’ Estelle straightened, bosom high, profile straight and stony, not turning to look at him. The row of birds adorning the distant spit could have been anything in the feather line but that was not what concerned her.

‘And there’s one black swan out there that has been pecked. Do you see her cleaning her feathers not far from the pelicans?’

‘No, I am afraid I don’t,’ Estelle replied coolly. ‘You must have phenomenal eyesight, sir.’

‘I notice a lot of things other people don’t. Part of my work, Mrs Bramshall. And what a good Staffordshire name that is.’ So he was a hack.

‘Good day to you, sir.’ It was a mistake to meet the observant blue eyes. Eyes like lapis.

THE third morning she saw him coming towards her on the beach below the new fort. A skitter of joyful children trailed him like happy piglets, scurrying to show him shells, she supposed, observing him covertly now. He was younger than her, perhaps by a year or so, with dark, curling hair and a friendly, betraying mouth.

He bent and whispered to the children and suddenly they were rushing towards her, thrusting treasures out on sandy palms, while he passed her by, like a slow comet, distant but lighting her dark, cowardly soul.

In the afternoon, lured by the tinkling sound of a dulcimer, she peered over a bungalow’s back fence and through the open door. It was him playing.

He stopped, sensing her, as if he had known his music would draw her to him, and came out to stand above the back steps beneath the verandah, waiting for her to speak.

‘Why did you send them?’ she asked.

‘The children? I thought you needed shells in your life. Silver, rose, like your ballgown.’ He turned back to his dulcimer.

The musical assault on her senses resumed, its medieval lilt threading out across the grass. She was dismissed.

IN her hired bedchamber, she stared at the angled looking-glass. An old man’s fancy? Yes, there was some truth in that, she thought and wandered across to the nearest window of her turret with a sigh. Through each pane she glimpsed offers of sands and paths, but south towards the estuary where the birds fished in their mirror images, she saw the house, his house.

The following day, she stole out after she had seen him leave his gate, and went to stare like a reckless burglar across the back fence. The dulcimer was put away but upon the table stood the vase from Government House.

‘I HAVE been waiting for you,’ he told her, closing the front door later against the twilight of meddling wind and spit of rain. The tiled hall smelt of polish and lemon. She followed him into the parlour. The central gasolier had not been lit. Instead, a pillared table lamp lent the room a warm glow.

He took two fine cups from the cupboard. Gold edged cups. The spoons were silver.

‘Did you fish today, sir?’ Her calm tone gave lie to the excitement building in her soul.

‘Not today.’

While the kettle whistled between its teeth upon the hob in the kitchen, her gaze was free to make an inventory, to note the wallpaper, the choice of books. He had some nice pieces but her gaze was drawn to the vase, now on the mantle shelf.

He carried the tray through.

‘Over there,’ he said, pointing to a newspaper. ‘I read a great deal.’

‘I daresay you write, too?’ She stared with loathing at the page waiting for her upon the fringed tablecloth, the column of words that at last had been able to dedicate itself to an overripe victim. This was dangerous. He knew exactly who she was.

‘The news is later here. Let us observe the niceties, Mrs Bramshall. Let me introduce myself. I’m Jack Tomlinson.’ The name was new to her. It was the way he kissed her hand that shifted the cogs and wheels into alignment. His moustache and long side-whiskers were gone now and the spectacles he had worn at Government House had been folded away.

‘Why, you are the gentleman who was by the mantle shelf that evening,’ she exclaimed, her thoughts springing outward.

He smiled, merely gestured her to sit and pour the tea.

‘But it was you, sir, who noticed the vase was sto …’ She stared anew at the vase upon the shelf, recognising it now as almost identical. The teapot shook in her hand and it took all her concentration not to stain the cloth. Good manners demanded that she should not accuse him.

‘Yes,’ he said, as if she had spoken aloud.

‘That’s why you noticed the vases,’ she exclaimed wearing cheerfulness like a veil. ‘Because you have one yourself.’

‘How very charitable of you to assume that,’ he murmured, accepting the cup and saucer (it rattled slightly), ‘but I’m afraid that is the same vase. Do have some cake.’

‘I … I’m sure you had good reason to … to … remove the vase.’ She accepted a slice of seed cake, trying to keep her increasing panic hidden beneath a patina of politeness.

‘Yes.’ He watched her over the rim of his cup.

She took a bite of cake and then gazed at him in horror. ‘Are you going to blackmail me then?’

‘Lord, no. I only let the people round here deduce that I’m with The Age. And I’m not going to write some sordid little piece for the gossip columns, if that’s what you think.’

‘I don’t know what to think.’ Estelle rose.

Out of politeness he was forced to put his tea down and stand also. She did not storm to the hall but paced behind the sofa. ‘I don’t understand how you were fishing when I arrived by ferry. If you have been following me …’

‘That’s just it. I wasn’t following you.’ He grinned.

‘Oh, don’t tell me we are talking about destiny.’

‘Coincidence. Destiny has such a hard ring about it, don’t you think?’ He picked up the vase and slid a hand lovingly across its perfect curves. ‘I’d say ninety per cent of theft is opportunism.’

‘Then what is this about?’

‘Nothing at all,’ he said with a sigh. ‘Or something.’ The smile that serifed his mouth was sad. ‘Opportunism, if it needs a name. Or some quaint need for honesty and company.’ He reluctantly replaced the ornament and turned, his blue eyes troubled now. ‘I beg you not to bring in the local constable. It’s not just that he’s not very bright but I really am doing quite well at the moment and I had rather we became friends.’ The sophistication crept back roguishly. ‘It will make your sojourn far less tedious.’

‘But you are a self-confessed thief.’

‘Is that really important? Do you want the vase back? It will take some explaining on your part. I thought you might enjoy an adventure but if not perhaps you had better leave now.’

Estelle’s fingers tapped the back of the sofa. ‘I will stay a little longer,’ she said huskily. ‘But no more cake. I hope, Mr…’


‘I hope, Mr Tomlinson, that you are a better thief than you are a cook.’

‘Oh, believe me, I am.’ He already had the Waterford crystal flute in his hand. ‘Champagne, I think. Champagne for the Governor’s Lady.’

‘BUT why did you steal the vase and then draw attention to its disappearance?’ she asked, as they strolled next day arm in arm along the loneliest path they could find.

‘To save you of course.’

She had hoped that was the answer. ‘You took that risk?’

‘It worked, didn’t it? I was rather proud of that. Besides, you deserved the favour. You had been so gracious to me on other occasions.’

‘Other occasions? I don’t remember you.’

He drew her arm tighter through his. ‘You were not meant to. I’ve collected quite a lot from Government House over the last months.’

She did not applaud him. ‘My husband was very angry about that vase. It was one of his favourite pieces.’

Her companion hit out at the bushes with his walking cane and laughed. ‘I know. I’m going to steal the other one as well. Not all at once, of course.’

‘No, please, it is far too dangerous.’ Estelle forced him to stop so they were facing one another. ‘Why must you steal?’

‘The danger, the adventure, the planning. My grandfather owned the manufactory that made that vase.’ He drew her on.

She caught her breath. ‘What at Whiston?’

‘But the factory failed when I was a boy. My papa sold what was left and I came out to the colonies to make my fortune. I regret to say I started thieving Whiston porcelain, piece by piece, and then I progressed to selecting other items too.’

‘Do you steal hearts as well?’ she teased.

‘Not usually.’ The blue gaze drowned her. ‘Would you like me to?’

‘From the governor’s lady!’

‘Believe me, I take only the best.’

AND seduce her he did. But it was subtle and slow and irresistible. For a month, she became a creature of fiction with her own forbidden hero. But adventures end in the bedside lamp being turned out, the wick lowered. Children know that day is different. That by day the musician and shepherdess ornaments return to their lonely separate ends of the shelf.

Jack Tomlinson was shot by a detective of police a year later as he made his escape from a mansion in Melbourne’s Emerald Hill, and he died that night in custody while his guards watched uncaring. The wealthy in Victoria read the news and let out a unison breath of relief.

‘STAYING long, ma’am?’

This time the mourning clothes were no disguise; the hotel was honoured by the widow of his late excellency the governor. She arrived with her maidservant and valises, but she had no interest in the hotel; at the edge of the shore the house that had stood empty was waiting, beckoning her.

For months Estelle sought her lover along the sands and where the seabirds drilled for worms. Finally, she found him in words, spinning stories from her memory, the pillow tales he had told her, the anecdotes while they had waited for the whiting to take the bait. And then the public began to buy her books, little guessing that she was the Governor’s widow and the thief had been her lover.

In her final novel, she broke the vase at Government House so it could never be stolen and she jammed the revolver before it could shoot her fictional hero dead at Emerald Hill.

IF you have the sight to see her, you can glimpse the ghost of the woman who was once the Governor’s Lady walking along the Queenscliff sands below the fort, as she once did before she died, day after day, so lonely and so long ago.

Be happy for her, for the spirit of her lover walks with her and the sands blows through them as they laugh together.

Copyright Isolde Martyn – first published in Woman’s Day, Australia.

Hugh Dispenser’s body found?

I was really very excited about this. Those of you who have read The Knight and the Rose may recall the horrible fate of King Edward II’s adviser (and possibly his gay lover), Hugh Despenser the younger, who was hanged, drawn and quartered in Hereford in 1326. So you can imagine how fascinating it was to read Laura Clout’s article on the discovery of his body (well, parts of it) in the UK Telegraph.

Apparently, investigations of the remains found at Hulton Abbey in Staffordshire in the 1970s show that the man’s body was decapitated, chopped up in a manner related to the punishment of quartering plus there was evidence of a wounding in the stomach, all consistent with the manner of Hugh’s death. It is known that his head and a few bones were given to his wife for burial and these are the parts that are missing from the Hulton remains. The carbon dating and other evidence, according to anthropologist Mary Lewis, points to the remains being that of Hugh Dispenser.

Here’s a quick run through the background to Hugh’s downfall:

King Edward II was famous for his male favourites. After Piers Gaveston was executed by the barons in 1312, the vacuum in Edward’s affection was gradually filled by the two Hugh Le Despensers – father and son. An ignominious defeat at Bannockburn in 1314 (when the Scots led by Robert the Bruce not only routed the English army but seized all their valuables) was a disaster for Edward and his close supporters. He and Hugh the younger fled for their lives. The queen was abandoned at Tynemouth and left to fend for herself.

For a while after the battle, the Despensers’ enemies among the barons held sway and both Hughs were banished from the court, but then in 1322 the King’s army won a victory against the rebel lords at Boroughbridge in Yorkshire (the beginning of The Knight and the Rose) and the leader of the rebels, the King’s cousin, the Earl of Lancaster was beheaded.

Edward was able to restore his friends’ fortunes. Hugh the elder became Earl of Winchester. Hugh the younger, now in his late thirties, sought to consolidate his power base in Wales. He also supervised the reform of the English Exchequer, made the King’s Chamber into an efficient department of state and reorganised the English wool industry.

Nemesis was waiting. The man who was to finally bring about the Despenser’s downfall was the handsome and capable Sir Roger Mortimer. He was a prisoner in the Tower of London but with the help of the rebel Bishop of Hereford, he managed to escape to France and there he bided his time.

High Dispenser’s greatest enemy was Edward’s neglected queen, Isabella, sister to the King of France, and in 1325, he and Edward permitted her to go across the Channel to negotiate with her brother. The big mistake was that they made was to let thirteen-year-old son, Prince Edward, the heir to the throne, go with her. Of course, Isabella met up again with Mortimer and they became lovers. Isabella was no longer a meek young princess but an assertive woman in her mid-thirties bent on revenge and she had an alternative king in mind.

She arranged a marriage for her son with Philippa, the daughter of the Count of Hainault and Holland, and with help from the new in-laws, she amassed an army to invade England in Prince Edward’s name.

They landed near Walton in Kent in September and the majority of the English barons joined their force. Isabella achieved extraordinary success or a woman. Her army seized London and drove the King and his supporters westward. Sixty-four year old Hugh the elder bravely made a stand at Bristol to give his son and King Edward time to escape. The castle garrison rebelled against him, he was forced to surrender and executed as a traitor. His head was sent for display in Winchester and his body was thrown to the dogs.

Edward and Hugh the younger fled into Wales and several times tried to sail to the Island of Lundy but adverse winds drove them back. Eventually they were captured and High was bought to Hereford for trial. One account, that I came across when I was writing The Knight and the Rose, said that when Hugh was brought to the scaffold, his captors had crowned his head with nettles and covered his body with religious writings. He was hanged on a 50 feet high ladder before the Queen, Mortimer and the Prince. Parts of his body were sent all over England for display and his head was stuck on a pole on London Bridge.

Edward II was forced to abdicate and died in Berkley Castle, probably murdered on the orders of Mortimer. Mortimer got too big for his boots and started to treat the young King Edward III in a less than respectful manner. He was arrested and executed. Isabella went into comfortable retirement.

Edward II, the play by Christopher Marlowe tells the story of this unpopular king and is worth seeing if you ever have the opportunity. I saw Ian McKellen play King Edward in London in 1970 and it was the most powerful stage acting I have ever seen. And if you want to get a sense of Hugh the Younger’s wealth and power, stand in the great hall of Caerphilly castle. Yes, this immense castle is in ruins now, but imagine it in all its glory.

One cannot help feeling a sense of tragedy in the horrible punishment meted out to Hugh the Younger. If only he had not been so acquisitive and high handed. Both he and his father had great administrative talent. Perhaps if he had served a king of more even temperament with better leadership skills and a dedication to serving England in a more responsible manner, he might have earned himself a better epitaph.

The jacaranda tree

Bill helped Phyllis off the ferryboat to Fig Tree and onto the wharf. He’d thought about taking her to one of the pleasure gardens in Middle Harbour, but this place, tucked up the Lane Cove river, was less showy, so with luck none of her family’s highfalutin friends would be around. The gossips would have a field day. The daughter of one of Sydney’s wealthiest men seen on the arm of a larrikin gardener!

‘Welcome to Fairyland, Phyl.’ Damn silly name, but never mind. Just seeing Phyllis’s face as she glimpsed the people picnicking beyond the paperbarks was a delight.

‘Ooh Bill, I’ve heard about this place,’ she exclaimed as he led her up the grassy bank. ‘How wicked I feel! lf my parents ever find out I’m not at Joan’s.’

Bill kissed the tip of her nose. Phyl was such a sweetheart. Every time she peeped up at him with those soulful eyes of hers from beneath her parasol, he felt he could die out of sheer love for her.

‘Mum’s the word, eh? Thought you deserved a treat.’ Feeling like a real toff with her on his arm, they joined the other couples heading for the pavilion. He’d not been here before either. Must have taken some work, cutting back the mangroves, clearing the thick bush for the strawberry farm and later getting the lawns started. Strewth, he mustn’t think like a gardener today. Today he was Phyllis’s beau.

She gazed at the wooden dance floor as though she’d never seen one before, and maybe she hadn’t. Her hoity-toity parents were so blessed strict. He would make sure that today was real special. He hadn’t told her yet, but he’d got his call-up, Tomorrow he had to report to the barracks and could be on a troopship, off to the war in France in no time, Yes, today was really special.

Sydney, November 1938

JEAN left the passenger ship at Circular Quay, and by the time she had caught a tram to the YWCA, unpacked her few belongings, then had a little walk along George Street – so different from St George’s Terrace and the quieter pace of Perth – to the Town Hall, she was pleased she’d saved up to come. Sydney was exciting. Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was showing and some of the girls at the YWCA said they’d take her dancing at the Trocadero.

And Sydney had trains that went underground! The young ticket clerk at Town Hall Station had said Jean would need to catch one of those to go to Mrs Dalrymple’s. Turramurra was ‘out in the sticks’, he said. ‘Lah-di-bloomin-dah,’ he added with a grin and a glance over his shoulder in case his supervisor was listening. The thought of catching a train all the way out there made Jean’s insides a bit queasy, but the young man had said it wasn’t difficult and she wouldn’t have to change trains or anything like that.

With only ten days in Sydney, Jean decided she’d better get the hardest part over first, so cranking up her courage, she made the phone call she was dreading. A posh voice at the other end invited her to morning tea the next day to talk about ‘dear Phyl’. Dear Phyl, the mother Jean had never heard of until three months ago.

Next morning, with an Agatha Christie book to read on the way, she descended down to the platform. The train roared into the cavernous station. Wait until she told her friends about this and the terrifying hurtle through the darkness. And she could have wept for sheer delight when the train came out into the sunshine and she found they were not only actually crossing the Harbour Bridge, but the city lay spread out on either side of her.

The Agatha Christie lay forgotten in her bag as the terraces of North Sydney gave way to tree-lined avenues. Purple was everywhere in the gardens, frontiers of agapanthus and so many jacaranda trees.

Nearly every station featured a high street of shops and one or two even had a movie theatre. Allotments and orchards dappled the slopes and Jean could glimpse the Blue Mountains to the west, but to the north and east, the horizon was now thick with trees and the houses were fewer.

It took half an hour before they drew up at the platform at Turramurra, and to Jean it really did feel like being out in the sticks. Scary really, but then she saw there were homes, well, mansions, among the trees.

She found Mrs D’s house all right, but didn’t know Mrs D from a bar of proverbial soap. The lady had written to her mum last year, telling her that Jean’s mother had died. Her real mother! Lord, that had been a shock, to discover she’d been adopted.

‘Jean, is it? Do come in, child,’ A little woman in an elegant black dress came towards her and extended a hand. It was all so proper. The maid wheeled in a trolley with teacups and plates of dainty sandwiches, Jean nearly spilt her tea she was so nervous, but her hostess soon abandoned small talk. A framed photo was removed from the piano and passed to her, followed by an album of snapshots.

‘That’s Phyllis when she was younger, and that was last year before she got ill.’

‘How did you know who my par…foster parents were, Mrs Dalrymple?’

‘Phyllis found the adoption details in her parents’ papers after her father passed away. She made me promise if anything ever happened, I should write to your adopted parents.

‘We go back a long way, Phyl and I. We were friends as children, then she married Harry, a friend of my husband’s. Harry’s overseas at the moment so you can’t meet him. In any case, it wouldn’t be appropriate. He wasn’t your father.’

‘Do you know who was?’ There, it was out, easier than she’d thought.

‘Oh lord, I knew you’d ask that.’ Mrs D sighed. ‘Phyl once mentioned a man called Bill O’Dea. Handsome fellow. Used to do her parents’ garden until he was called up for the war. I don’t think he made it back. He always made her laugh, she said. She must have been fond of him because I remember looking at photos with her some years later, and there were tears in her eyes as she showed me one. ‘There’s Bill,’ she said. It was really a snap of her parents, but he was in the background. He looked a nice sort.’

BILL was halfway through engraving the morning’s job when he noticed a girl watching him from across the road. He set down his chisel and stared back. There was something sweet about her as she looked at his name above the door.

People were mostly sad when they came to see him, when they had lost someone they’d loved. He stopped whistling, wondering if the kid had ever done this before, ordered a headstone.

‘Can I show you around, luv?’ he called out as she came in.

‘Mr O’Dea?’ Such bright, beautiful eyes she had. How he wished he were twenty years younger.

‘Certainly am,’ he replied.

There was a plucky edge to her smile. ‘It took me a while to find you.’

She trotted after him as he showed her the sandstone, granite and marble and the choice of lettering. ‘For your mum, is it?’

‘Yes, sort of.’ It was the breathless way she said it that plucked some forgotten chord in him. His friends said he was a good listener and sometimes his customers needed to talk. Like now. ‘I’ve just come from her grave.’

Brave little thing. He didn’t ask if she wanted tea, just lit the gas stove. ‘What’s on your mind then?’

He expected her to say, ‘granite or …’, but she raised her eyes to his, searching his face. ‘I think you’re my father.’ It was Bill who needed the cuppa’. In fact, he also needed the slug of gin he poured into it.

The names she – Jean, her name was – babbled out before he even asked. Oh, he knew them. Names he hadn’t heard for the last twenty or so years. He couldn’t find words straight away, just looked at her. She had made a real effort to find him.

She waited for his answer, gazing with eyes that could have been those of his beloved Phyllis. Phyl’s daughter. His daughter! Bill could have wept. Instead, he somehow reached the door where, shakily, he stood for a moment, collecting himself, before he turned the open sign to ‘closed’.

Then he came back to the questioning young face and for the first time told his side of it. How Phyl’s parents had been so toffee-nosed, wanting her to make a ‘good’ marriage. With rusty love, he began to speak about Phyl, trying in these few precious minutes to make her more than a name on a birth certificate. He’d been able to make Phyl laugh, taken her to a few places, like the day out at Fairyland. But for this child of his who looked at him with her soulful eyes, the memories weren’t enough. Phyllis’s daughter, who Phyllis would never know. Oh, how could he give Jean back her mother?

‘Come on,’ he said. ‘I’ve a couple of places to show you.’

It was hard to find where Fairyland had been. There was a path of sorts, but the jetty was gone and the bush had grown back. Hard to believe there’d been anything there, but he found the tree carved with their initials and Jean stroked her fingertips across her mother’s and listened as Bill told about the only afternoon he’d spent with the woman he loved.

‘This is the first place,’ he said. ‘I still daydream about that day. But there’s somewhere else just for you, but we need to go back to the harbour to find it.’

THE jacaranda tree stood in full glory, like the queen of trees that she was, beaming out at the glassy water between the bridge and Kirribilli, Behind the tree was a flight of garden steps and up there Phyllis’s family had lived with their expensive view, their sulks, their snobbery and their servants. The mansion was divided into apartments now.

‘She lived here?’ Jean spoke in awe.

‘Until she was married. And that,’ Bill smiled towards the jacaranda, ‘that’s your tree, Jean.’

‘Mine?’ She stared at it in puzzlement.

‘The hospital where your mother went used to give each new mum a little jacaranda seedling. The north shore is full of jacarandas now. The people at the hospital wouldn’t let your mum have one because you were being adopted. So when Phyl was well again, what does she do but go to a plant nursery. She bought the seedling and planted it. She said that as she watched it grow, she would think of you and that as long as the tree was all right, she knew you were. Just her fancy, see. But it helped with the grievin’ for you.’

‘So you saw her again?’

‘Just the once, but she didn’t see me. They had married her to some toff by the time I got back from the war. She was standing just here. So unhappy. Strewth, I longed to speak to her, God knows I did. But what was the use? Divorce? No, I couldn’t bear the thought of her name in the headlines. They’d have called her a slut who liked a bit of rough. Me, who loved her.’ The phrases were harder to find now.

‘Maybe I should have asked her what she wanted instead of making the decision for both of us. It seemed kinder that she thought I was gone for ever, that’s all.’

‘That took a great deal of courage,’ said Jean.

‘My word, it did.’ His voice faltered for an instant. ‘So I kept away, but Sal, her parents’ cook, used to tell me how your mother was. An’ the years went by. I married and set up as a stonemason. Found I had a real feel for it. I didn’t know Phyl had passed away until her husband commissioned me to do her stone. I gave her the best an’ put my own line on it – love changeth not.

‘What did you do that for, you idiot’ says her snooty husband. ‘I ain’t changin’ it,’ I tell him. And I let him think it was just an error.

‘It’s beautiful, You did love her.’

‘Like there was no tomorrow, but I didn’t mean to give her grief like a baby coming along, But looking at you, lass, I don’t regret it.’

His daughter stood and stared up at the beautiful tree. Its splendour almost filled the garden. She reached out, touched the bark-with reverence, then wrapped her arms around it and wept.

Her real mother hadn’t given her up. All through the years she had cared. She had truly cared.

And Bill smiled at the steps where Phyl once used to sit with a book open on her lap, pretending to read while he raked the leaves. ‘Our girl, Phyl,’ he said. ‘Meet our girl.’

Copyright Isolde Martyn

The case of the missing head

I thought you might be interested to hear about The Case of the Bishop’s Missing Head. Some years ago I came across the fact that Cardinal John Morton’s fine tomb in Canterbury was empty. I haven’t much time for Morton, who was one of King Henry VII’s advisors, and he wasn’t particularly flavour of the month among his contemporaries either. His policy was: if you flaunt your wealth, you can pay more tax, and if you are going round looking poor than you must be a miser and you can also pay more tax. It was nicknamed ‘Morton’s Fork’.

So why was the tomb empty? Well, Morton had been buried in a shallow grave in the cathedral crypt. During the English Civil War, the metal plate marking his grave was taken by the Roundheads for recycling as munitions, and the unprotected flagstones began to crack. By the reign of Charles II, people were pilfering Morton’s bones and the Archbishop of Canterbury’s’s nephew, Ralph Sheldon, suggested to his uncle that the skull should be removed and placed in a leaden box for safekeeping. By the 1680s, it had become a Sheldon family heirloom.

The skull seems to have ended up with a Jesuit college in Liège. The Sheldons, like many Roman Catholic families, had sent their sons overseas to be educated because Roman Catholic schools were not permitted in England and maybe one of them donated the skull to the college. During the French Revolution, the school shifted to England and took up permanent residence in an Elizabethan mansion in Stonyhurst, Lancashire, courtesy of an old pupil, Thomas Weld of Dorset, who had inherited the property.

When I wrote to Stonyhurst College inquiring if they did indeed have Morton’s head, the school authorities were wondering the same question. Feeling a duty of care, they had just sent off the skull for analysis to the Regius Professor of Forensic Science at Edinburgh University.

Professor Busuttil in his unpublished report concluded that the skull belonged to ‘an elderly well-nourished Caucasian male who died five centuries ago’. The skull showed that the man had not suffered from any protein or vitamin deficiency and therefore it was ‘likely that he lived in the higher socio-economic strata of his society’. The professor found there was no evidence of ‘osteoporosis or osteroarthrosis in the tempero-mandible joint sockets’ and this suggested that the skull belonged to a man not older than sixty-five to seventy years old.

I did some research on the Weld family in the Dorset archives. They were Roman Catholic and family members had collected memorabilia and relics but there was no mention of this particular item being donated to Stonyhurst. The college did, however, at various times, have memorabilia of other famous Roman Catholics such as Sir Thomas More, so it was all quite feasible that the Sheldons might have donated the skull to the college collection.

Morton was reputed to have been well into his seventies when he died in 1500. I have been unable to find out the year of his birth but examining his career indicates that he must have been born before 1430. The fact that his head is actually missing from his grave also supports the tradition that the skull may well be his.

Morton was the great enemy of King Richard III and seduced the king’s greatest supporter, the Duke of Buckingham, to rebel against Richard.

What an ending for the three of them! Richard’s bones under a Leicester car park, Buckingham’s ghost is reputed to haunt Debenham’s department store in Salisbury and Morton has been decapitated by posterity.

Update September 2012

And the end of the story? Archaeologists have found Richard’s skeleton in the carpark site!

I don’t know if Stonyhurst College decided to send the skull back to Canterbury Cathedral advising them to take better care of it this time, or whether the school authorities buried the skull with an inscription stating its history. Presumably, after centuries of adventure, the head is now at peace.