Vine Manor

Chapter 5

"Paul, will you teach me to drive? I'm eighteen now and I think it's time I learned. It would help if I could take the car when I go to the village to do the shopping, and I could drive Maria around when she needs to go somewhere. You wouldn't have to be the one to take her to town every time, I'd be happy to do it. Please, Paul?"

"Yes, I suppose you do need to drive, stuck out here in this remote place. All right, I'll teach you. We can start tomorrow if you like, I'm going out in the car now for the rest of the day."

It was usual for Paul to disappear in the car for hours at a time. He never said where he had been or what he had been doing. After he had evaded their questions a few times, Maria and Helena had just stopped asking. His absences had also aroused Mrs Perry's curiosity.

"Miss Helena, do you know where he goes in the car? Not that it's any of my business, of course, but most of the men his age are at work in the daytime."

"I've got no idea, Mrs Perry. Why, do you think he might have found a girlfriend? What are the village gossips saying?"

"Oh, I haven't heard anything, Miss. It's just my curiosity getting the better of me."

Helena was sure that if any gossip was going around the village Eve Perry would have been among the first to hear it. She was in fact capable of starting a rumour based on the slightest evidence that Paul was having an illicit affair. She hoped Paul had not actually got entangled with a married woman from the village. It was hard to keep these things hidden from the local gossips and the scandal would greatly upset Maria.

"He never was a secretive child before he went away. Master Paul has changed. He was so friendly, he knew everyone from the village, just like you do, Miss Helena. Now he doesn't even go into the shops, not even to keep you company. He'll pass old friends, these days, and say no more than good morning."

Mrs Perry was not the only one to comment on Paul's changed behaviour. George Sanderson came to see Maria with some papers to sign regarding her investments. Maria invited him to stay to lunch and he accepted with pleasure. He had a question for Paul.

"Paul, have you forgotten your old schoolteacher? She can't come to see you, you know, it's a long time since she could walk without a stick. She's heard of your return and every time I go to see her, which is quite often as I handle her business affairs, she asks when she can expect a visit. All her old pupils that still live in the area call on her, now that she can't get about."

"Miss Forsythe? Of course I must go and see her. She must be very old now, I suppose she retired years ago. Yes, I'll go tomorrow." Paul did not seem to have any great enthusiasm for the visit.

After lunch Paul said he was going out in the car. George Sanderson went with Maria and Helena to the sitting room. The afternoon sun was shining in through the big window, making the room a little too warm, and Helena opened the window.

"You two ladies must pay a visit to my wife," George said, "come over for tea one day, she would love that. She's always complaining that the neighbourhood is too quiet, I'm sure she would benefit from some female company."

"Yes, I would love to, and I'm sure Helena will too. Thank you, George," Maria said.

"Oh, of course I will! I like Tessa," Helena agreed.

"Bring Paul if you like, I'm sure Tessa will want to meet him. Of course his return after all this time is quite a sensation in the village. Just between us, some people feel that he is a little reserved, not at all like the friendly boy they remember. Of course it's been many years and people do change. What worries me more, Maria, is something Tessa heard from Eve Perry, that at times he can be quite disrespectful to you. That's not at all like the Paul I remember. He could be a mischievous child but he was always polite."

"He is usually very thoughtful. Since my eyes have got worse, he's been driving me everywhere," Maria replied in defence of her son.

Helena remembered the visit to the optician. "He only took you somewhere once and then he complained about it!"

"Maria, I don't quite know how to put this, but are you completely sure that he is your son? Did he have any papers, any evidence at all to identify him as Paul Grayling?"

"George, I think I should know my own son!"

"After an absence of twelve years? Why are you so sure? Remember, your heir stands to inherit this house and its grounds, a very valuable property! It would be a wise precaution to give him a test, ask him some questions about the past that only the real Paul could answer. Have you found any gaps in his memories? Helena, have you noticed anything?"

"He forgot one thing, he broke a toy I had when I was little, but I suppose that was more important to me than it was to him! But just now, at lunch, he remembered his old teacher's name. How could he know that if he wasn't Paul?"

George shook his head. "Who the schoolteacher was twenty years ago is doubtless a matter of record. The information could be obtained by a phone call to anyone who lives around here. I agree that a stranger who didn't expect to be questioned wouldn't know it."

"I don't believe we're discussing this!" Maria was almost in tears. "He's my son! I know he is. It doesn't matter to me what he can or cannot remember. I won't have him tested as if he was someone applying for a job! It's an insult and I won't allow it. Now I don't want to hear any more about this."

"Very well, Maria, if that's how you feel," George said quietly. In the silence that followed, Helena heard a noise and turned to look out of the window. She saw Paul hurrying away from the house in the direction of the garage. Had he overheard any of their conversation? The window had been open; he could have listened to the whole thing. She wished she had agreed with Maria and supported Paul. The effort she had put into making friends with him would be wasted if he had overheard. It was hard to believe he was completely a fraud.

Soon after this George Sanderson left to keep an afternoon appointment. Helena walked with him to the front door. "Remember what I said, Helena, and if Maria shows any signs of changing her mind, please let me know. Maybe I'm wrong, but there's one thing I can't explain that makes me suspicious. When I first saw him I didn't recognise him as Paul Grayling, but I did have a strong feeling I'd seen him somewhere before."

After saying goodbye to George and promising again to have tea with his wife in the near future, Helena returned to the sitting room. Maria was sitting in the same chair where she had left her, her face hidden in her hands. Seeming unaware of Helena's presence, she reached for her handbag revealing a face that was a picture of despair. She took out a handkerchief and began to wipe away her tears.

"Maria! Don't cry! Please tell me what's wrong. Is it because of Paul?"

"Yes!" Maria sobbed, visibly trying to gain control of her feelings, "Oh, Helena, I must be the most selfish and ungrateful woman in the world. Why can't I be happy, now that my son is back with me? I longed so much to see him again, even if only for a moment. Now he lives with me again and all I can do is find fault with him! He was such a loving child, kind and affectionate. He's changed so much! I can't help feeling it must be my fault. What did I do to make him run away? What did I do to make him the man he is?"

"Please, Maria, don't blame yourself! You're such a good person, you've always been so kind to me. I'm sure it's not your fault!"

"The worst thing is, when George said he might not actually be Paul, just for a moment I couldn't help hoping he was right! Paul seems like a stranger to me now, Helena. I don't like to think of my son becoming such a man!"

"Do you think he could really be someone else and not Paul? Is it possible?"

"Of course not! George is a typical lawyer, always wanting documents. He'd ask Jesus for his birth certificate to prove he was the Son of God! No, he is Paul, and he needs my love and acceptance. I lost him when he was sixteen, I'm not going to lose him again. Helena, please, for my sake, try to be his friend!"

Read Chapter 6