Vine Manor

Chapter 4

Helena stood waiting on the station platform. Where was Paul? She had phoned from Paddington and told Maria which train she would catch, and Maria had said she would send Paul to the station in the car to pick her up. She would have caught the bus to the village and walked through the wood to Vine Manor if she had not had so much luggage. As well as the large case she had taken to Paris, she had returned with another bag full of the new clothes she had bought there. Also, it looked like it was going to rain, the clouds were grey and thick. Behind the ominous clouds the sun was setting; it would soon be dark. No, it was impossible to walk, she would just have to wait. Still, it was good to be back in England. She loved Paris; the last month had been the most exciting time of her life, but she was happy to be going home. She had missed Maria and even Eve Perry, and now at last she had the chance to really get to know Paul. Where was he? She was tired after a long day of travelling; what she wanted was to sit down in Maria's peaceful sitting room with a cup of tea. In France everyone drank coffee and the cafes did not know how to serve tea in the English style.

At last she saw Maria's old car pull up outside the station. Paul got out and came to the platform to meet her. Helena was so pleased to see him that she instantly forgave him for being late.

"Paul, there you are! It's good to see you. And I'm glad to be home at last."

"Hello, Helena. Did you have a good time? Tell me about it on the way. I hope you haven't been waiting too long? Mama was making such a fuss, telling me I was going to be late." He picked up Helena's two cases and took them to the car.

"Oh, it's all right. We'll soon be home now. Thanks for coming to pick me up, Paul."

While Paul drove back to Vine Manor, Helena told him about the shops, cafes and nightclubs of Paris. Paul drove fast and it did not seem long before they emerged from the vineyard to see Vine Manor before them, stone walls glowing red in the last rays of sunlight that beamed through a break in the clouds.

"Home at last!" said Helena as Paul got her bags out of the car, "It feels so good to see the old house again. Didn't you feel like this, Paul, when you came back home?"

"I suppose I did," Paul answered with some hesitation, "but I was worried about what Maria would say. I was thinking about that more than anything else."

"Paul! You should have known she'd be overjoyed to see you! She missed you so much when you left, you can't imagine she wouldn't want you back! No, I know having you here with us is just what she needs to make her really happy."

The front door opened and Maria and Mrs Perry came out. At once Maria put her arms round Helena and kissed her. "Helena my love, I am so pleased to see you! The place has seemed very quiet without you. Come in and tell me all about your travels."

Eve Perry came forward. "Welcome back, Miss Helena. You must be hungry after travelling all the way from Paris. I can have dinner ready in ten minutes, if you like."

"Oh Maria, it's so good to be home! Thanks Mrs Perry, I admit I'm starving."

The dinner was a chicken casserole that Mrs Perry had made in advance, served with potatoes and asparagus. Helena thought it was extremely tasty and ate two large helpings. As soon as her immediate hunger was satisfied she noticed that Maria was not eating very much and that Paul had left his asparagus untouched on his plate.

"Don't you like asparagus, Paul?"

"No, I don't, very much."

"But Paul!" Maria exclaimed, "you used to love it, even when you were a small child!"

"Well, I've gone off it now."

Helena quickly changed the subject. "I must tell you about a modern art exhibition I went to with a friend of Mignon's." She wished she had not been so tactless as to comment on the asparagus.

After dinner Helena felt refreshed and went upstairs to unpack her things. Maria came with her to see the new clothes she had bought in Paris. Mignon had helped her pack these clothes, using tissue paper to prevent the expensive dresses from creasing. Also wrapped in tissue paper, packed carefully by Helena herself, were the plant specimens the old herbalist had given her. These she took downstairs to the study, planning to put them in labelled jars with her other specimens.

As soon as she entered the study she knew that someone had been using the room while she was away. The things she had left on the table had all been moved to one end, as if somebody had been making a space for their own work. That morning's Times had been left folded on one of the chairs, the crossword half completed. Of course it must have been Paul; and why not? He was Maria's son and one day, she assumed, the house would belong to him. All the same it felt strange to think of someone else sitting at her work table where she conducted her experiments, of other hands leafing through her botanical journals.

Helena soon settled back into the comfortable routine of village life. She found that Paul's presence at Vine Manor did not have so much impact on her daily life as she had hoped. He was there for meals, of course, but spent a lot of time going out by himself in the car. He didn't even go with her to the village shops. She could have used his help carrying home the groceries, now there was another mouth to feed. Then there was his occasional presence in the study. She often came in to continue her herbal studies to find her things were not as she had left them.

She felt uneasy about Maria. During the month of her absence Maria seemed somehow to have aged, to be even a little depressed. She couldn't help wondering if Maria was unwell. It would be typical of Maria to pretend that nothing was wrong to save her from worry. She felt a little guilty at having left her with no-one to confide in for the past month. Eventually she decided she must ask Maria about her health and perhaps suggest a visit to the doctor. One warm Spring afternoon she went out to where Maria was tending the roses.

"Since I came back from France, I've noticed you seem a bit tired," she said. "Maria, if you've not been well, I think it's better if you tell me."

"I've been meaning to tell you, my dear," Maria replied, "don't worry, it's nothing serious. It's just that for the past few months, my eyesight has been getting worse. That's why I don't drive anymore. I can still see well enough for most things, but at a distance everything looks blurred. I didn't want to alarm you when you were just about to go to Paris, I thought I'd wait and tell you when you came back, and it never seemed to be a good time."

"You should get new glasses, Maria! I'm sure that would help. Make an appointment with the optician and get Paul to drive you into town."

"Yes, I know that's what I should do, I've just been putting it off."

Helena was afraid that Maria would put it off for even longer. She phoned the opticians herself and made an appointment for Maria to come in the next day.

"I've got an appointment with the optician tomorrow, Paul," Maria said when they were all in the sitting room after dinner that evening. "Will you be able to drive me to St Austell?"

"Well, since your eyes are so bad you can't drive yourself, I suppose I'll have to. What time is your appointment?"

"Quarter past nine."

"Couldn't you get a later time? I'll have to get up early."

Helena intervened. "Paul, I'm worried about Maria's eyes and you should be too. I think she was lucky to get an appointment for tomorrow at all with such short notice. If you knew about her eyes, you should have been pressing her to go to the optician, not complaining about the time! Really, I'm shocked by your attitude. Don't you think you're being a bit selfish?"

Paul stared back at Helena's angry face for a long moment. "I'm sorry. Of course I'll take you, Mama." Abruptly, he pushed back his chair and left the room.

Paul and Maria left early the next morning to keep the appointment with the opticians in St Austell. Helena decided to go out on one of her herb collecting walks. She found it hard as she meandered through the trees to focus her mind on the shrubs around her feet. Her thoughts kept wandering back to the evening before. Paul had been so rude to his mother, so careless of her feelings, so indifferent to the possible danger to her eyes. She was not sorry that she had spoken sharply to him; he deserved it. Things could have been so different, she thought regretfully, if Paul had just been a different kind of person.

She returned to the house with only one specimen to show for her hour of searching the woods. She had heard of a small mushroom that was supposed to cure ear infections, to be found only at this time of the year. She had seen this one almost under her feet. There were so many similar mushroom species in the woods, she would have to look up her fungus book to check if this was the right one. She took the specimen with her into the study. As she turned the pages of the fungus book she heard the sound of the car driving up to the front door. She left the book open on the table and hurried out of the room and down the dark corridor that led to the front of the house, anxious to hear what the optician had said.

Mrs Perry had also heard the car and was in the hall, helping Maria take off her coat. Helena came up as Maria was saying, "He told me there's nothing wrong with my eyes except that I'm going to need a stronger pair of glasses. He said at my age I should be seeing an optician at least once a year."

"He would say that, it's how they make their money!" scornfully exclaimed Eve Perry, who had never been to an optician in her life.

Helena hugged Maria, relieved to hear the news. "Don't you wish you'd gone months ago? Next time don't put it off, Maria," she said.

After a while she remembered her mushroom specimen and went back to the study. Paul was in there, standing by the table, idly turning the pages of her fungus book. Helena spoke to him impulsively, her anger of the day before forgotten.

"Hello, Paul, I just heard from Maria that all she needs is new glasses! So that's all right then. Are you reading my book? I'm trying to identify a specimen I found this morning."

Paul picked up the little mushroom from the table. It looked very small and delicate in his large hands. "This one? I've seen this kind before, I think it's called Red Ear. I don't know why when it's a kind of brown colour."

"Paul! I didn't know you were interested in mushrooms."

"I'm not! I just remember this one, some old woman showed it to me, a long time ago. I don't know why I remembered it, really. Can you eat it or is it poisonous? It's one or the other with mushrooms, isn't it?"

"This one's not poisonous, if it's the one I think it is, at least not in small amounts. It's used as a medicine but I'm not sure if it really works. Some of the specimens I've got in here are poisonous though, you need to be careful if you're eating in here not to get anything on your food. Look at this one. I was warned to be very careful with this by the man who gave me the specimen. Apparently even a small amount of this can be dangerous." She took down from a shelf a clear glass jar containing one of the specimens she had got from the herbalist in Paris. A white label was filled in with the words " Rumex nigra, Fleur du Mort" in Helena's neat handwriting. Paul examined the jar carefully, then put it down on the table.

"I want to ask you something, Helena. Do you think Mama is happy for me to go on living here?"

"What a strange question! You'd better ask her, I think. I would have thought she'd be very glad to have you back with us." Of course that was what was expected of a mother whose beloved son had returned after a long absence. Up to the day before Helena would have said it was true of Maria. Now she was not so sure. Certainly her own opinion of Paul had changed, though for Maria's sake she would do her best to get on with him as well as she could. She had hoped at Paul's return to find in him a companion, even a friend. Now she could almost wish he had never come back.

Read Chapter 5