CHAPTER ONE: JESSICA
“Well, you know what they say, don’t you pet? What don’t kill you, will make you stronger.”
Jessica felt her teeth dig into her tongue with the effort of not snapping back. It was one of those glib sayings people trotted out every time they realised there was harm done they couldn’t heal. She wanted to snarl that what didn’t kill you could just as easily leave you broken and bloody, weakened and vulnerable and much less strong than you were before. It could also leave you changed as well as damaged, struggling to know who this stranger was that you had become – the one who jumped at shadows and whose heart started racing when a car engine started up.
It was not a good look for a woman who had once been decorated for valour.
She forced a smile and did not cringe at the hand pat that went with the words of wisdom, delivered from the place of someone whose worst nightmares were about being caught on Scarborough seafront without her make-up on.
“Your aunt means well, Jess.”
The voice came from the door of the lounge, which was being pushed open. There was a smell of fresh coffee as Uncle David carried in a tray with a samovar and tiny cups.
“Oh don’t be so daft, Dave. She knows I mean well, don’t you pet?”
Jessica nodded and managed a half-smile, then busied herself moving the newspaper, and a couple of magazines about horoscopes and tarot cards, from the table in front of the paisley-patterned settee. Her uncle set the tray down with care then served the coffee as he always did – strong, black and sweet.
His eyes were not patronising when he looked at her. But then he had fought at Goose Green and brought home his own ghosts to roost in the rafters of the perfect life his wife devised for them both. No children of their own, but then they had Jess.
“So are you off to Whitby again to see that young man?” Aunt Susan peered over both the top of her cup and her bifocals.
For a moment, just hearing someone naming the place sent a shiver through Jessica’s spine, and her imagination bridged the miles to place her on top of the cliffs, screaming gulls wheeling overhead, the wind that never slept and Roald, the image of a modern-day viking, hair blowing over his face, shoulders half-hunched in a fleece, face animated, telling her the history of the ruined abbey as if he had been there at the time.
“It was all started by a woman – Hild. She was an amazing woman and not one you would want to cross. A princess of sorts. And for all she was an abbess eventually, she didn’t decide to become a nun until she was in her thirties and she’d done one heck of a lot of living by then.” He paused and made a really broad gesture with one arm as if including the ruins and all the headland where they stood. “She loved this place. Would stand up on the cliffs, by the beacon that was here then and look out over the sea, and unbraid her hair so the wind could play with it. And, you know, when she established that first abbey it was nothing like you would think of a monastery today. It was more like a community – both men and women.”
It was easy to picture Hilda in her Saxon dress, facing out over the waves. Jessica thought of that actress she’d seen playing Rowena in ‘Ivanhoe’.
“No,” Roald sounded almost angry, “Hild was of Anglic blood – not Saxon. The ones Pope Gregory famously spoke about when he saw some being sold as slaves: ‘Non Angli, sed angeli’.
Jessica looked at him her mouth very slightly agape. He did that a lot. It was very unsettling.
“Non angerlee – what?”
Roald grinned and gave an exaggerated mock wince, as if her pronunciation caused him pain.
“Non Angli, sed angeli – ‘These are not Angles, they are angels.’ “
Part 2 of Maybe will be here next week…