Nicola Marlow sat on Miranda West's bed and allowed her leg to swing. “I can't believe we've only got a year left at Kingscote,” she said. “And now we have to decide what on earth we're going to do afterwards!”
“I thought you were going into the Wrens?” teased Miranda, knowing she would provoke a reaction.
“That was when I was thirteen! Honestly Miranda, you do go on. Just because you've known what you were going to do since you were in nappies....”
“Well, it's not as if I had all that much choice, really. The Shop awaits. And I'm not entirely sure what I would do, else. And there is this wonderful course on Chinese Ceramics at SOAS I'm going to apply for. Might you do music?”
“Well, Dr Herrick would like me to, but I don't have the right qualifications to get in to the Royal College, and I'm not sure I'm all that keen, honestly. I mean, I love singing now, but I can't see myself doing it professionally.”
“What would you like to do? I mean, money no object, qualifications no object, A levels no object?”
“Help, I don't know. Travel, I suppose. When I was younger I used to want to go round the world, and I think I still do, but I'd want to work my way round now, not just go round on some yacht or other. I definitely don't want to just go home and stay at home. Rowan once suggested I train as a vet and then come home and be a tame vet for Trennels, but really, I can't think of a more ghastly idea!”
“No, you might have to put down a sick animal, and I can't see you enjoying doing that!”
The gong for lunch rang then, and the girls went down to join Miranda's mother, who was a rather alarming hostess, but who had known Nicola for some years now. This was not the first time the girls had stayed with each other, and Nicola's week in London was to be followed by Miranda's week at Trennels.
After lunch, the plan had originally been to go shopping, but the lure of the Shop proved, as always, too strong, and the girls ended up there, admiring the antiques and enjoying the hushed atmosphere. Mr West, as always welcomed them and set them to work copying details of his latest acquisitions.
When they broke, an hour later, for a much-needed cup of tea, Mr West was impressed by the amount of work they had done. “I shall have to be paying you if you go on like this!” he exclaimed. “Nicola, I think I shall have to kidnap you to come and work for me when you leave school!”
Nicola laughed. She liked Mr West and she liked the Shop. Well, why not? “Why not?” she said. “I don't have anything else I really want to do....”
Back at home, just before school started again, Nicola went over to Meriot Chase to see Patrick. He was about to start his second year at Reading, dutifully reading Agriculture and Estate Management, but Nicola had the feeling that his heart was not really in it. “I suppose they do teach us the why of things, but nothing you wouldn't know once you'd been doing it a year or so.”
“Oh, I don't know,” said Nicola. “Rowan would kill to have time to do such a course. She looked into doing one part-time at Colebridge Tech, but it took more time than she was able to spare.”
“I thought Peter was going to take over once he's finished at Seal Hayne?”
“So he is, but then Rowan's going to marry George, and then, as she says, she won't have to lift turnips any more and doesn't care if she never lifts another!”
“Amazing of my Ma to have thought of the Young Farmers for her, wasn't it?”
“Yes, pretty brilliant! Rowan loves the whole thing, not just George. Peter has already been to several meetings, he's looking forward to it.”
“So you're going to be the one keeping up the family Naval tradition, then?”
“Don't be funny, Patrick. You know I'm not.”
“Really not? Whyever not – I thought you wanted it.”
“Didn't you know? I wanted it when I was thirteen, of course, but then Giles was my hero and the eighth wonder of the world, and all that. But then when there was all that huha over Peter leaving Dartmouth after his O levels, and Giles was such a prize prat about it, and Daddy wasn't much better. And all that huha about Ginty the previous year, when she ran away. I began to think that if naval officers were like Daddy and Giles, I wasn't going to be one, thank you very much!”
“Do they know?”
“Well, I haven't exactly spelt it out to them, but I suspect they do realise.”
“And what are you going to do?”
“Haven't an earthly!” said Nicola, more airily than she felt. “Some time next year I expect I shall apply to do a university course to keep from having to decide for another three years.”
“Of course, we could always get married – there's a job vacancy for Mrs Patrick....”
“Patrick, don't be silly! As if either of us were ready to get married, even in another year.”
“No, I know. But I do so very love you.”
“I love you, too. But I'm not ready to marry anybody, and don't intend to for years.”
A few weeks after term started, Nicola was startled to receive a typewritten letter:
“My dear Nicola,
“Further to our conversation last month, I have a proposition to put to you concerning your future. As you know, Miranda will be doing a course in Chinese Ceramics at SOAS before joining me in the Shop, and I would therefore like to offer you a year's paid apprenticeship with me here in London. Should this work out for you, I would then be in a position to offer you a further year with our partner Shop in Paris, conditional to your continuing to work for me for a further two or three years after that, in a capacity that will be mutually agreed.
“There is presently some space over the shop and I propose to turn this into a small apartment which you and Miranda would be able to share, for which you will be charged a nominal rent.
“If you are interested, please contact me as soon as possible; I will then arrange to come down to Kingscote to visit you so that we can discuss terms and conditions, and so on.
“I do hope to receive a favourable reply, and look forward to hearing from you.
“With all good wishes,
“Miranda, did you know about this?” asked Nicola, thrusting the letter under her friend's nose.
“I knew Daddy was thinking about it. He asked me what I thought, and I was all for it. You are going to say yes, Nick, aren't you?”
“I expect so. I shall want to talk to him about it all first – what happens if I hate it, or he hates me, or I'm hopeless at it. I mean, it does sound like fun, and maybe I could specialise in something interesting, like armour and weapons, and so on. But why me?”
“Because you would be very good at it, I think. And anyway, I should love to share a flat with you next year; I've seen the plans. Daddy's going to turn it into a flat for me, anyway – he knows I can't live with Mummy any more, we'd drive each other mad.”
“But your mother doesn't like me all that much; what does she think of it all?”
“Daddy doesn't let her have much say in shop staff; she's a fantastic buyer, and she knows how to get a really good bargain, but she doesn't get that involved in the day-to-day work, although she's a fantastic saleswoman when she does, or if we're arranging a private sale. And she doesn't hate you, you know!”
Nicola laughed, but privately thought that the less she had to do with Mrs West, the better. She would certainly take this opportunity that had so wonderfully fallen into her lap, though.
Her family was pleased for her, and so, amazingly, was Miss Keith. “It is a great opportunity for you, Nicola. Mr West is being extremely generous, and you must work hard, and study hard, to justify his faith in you.”
Nicola remembered that she had once been told, years ago, that Mr West – Reuben, now, if she could ever bring herself to call him that – had paid for the school swimming-pool. After which she felt better. If he could afford to pay for the swimming-pool, he could certainly afford to invest a little in her, even if it should all go horribly wrong.
Leaving Kingscote was unexpectedly hard, and Nicola had only had two weeks at home before leaving for her new life in London. Lawrie, who had failed in her ambition to gain a place at RADA, had settled, more or less happily, on a place at Port Wade College of Drama and was preening herself on having a further month's holiday. Which didn't stop her angling for an invitation to stay in London, something Nicola was reluctant to extend until she had settled down herself.
Although she hadn't really expected to, Nicola soon found herself absorbed by her work. She even found she enjoyed selling, especially when people wanted to buy but needed to be talked into it. As she learnt to love many of the pieces as though they were her own, she had little difficulty in imparting that enthusiasm to potential buyers. But the main subjects that Reuben West wanted her to learn were provenance and sourcing. How do you find who has things to sell? How do you distinguish between a valuable antique and a piece of tat? How do you recognise Heppelwhite or Chippendale and distinguish them from a good imitation?
Nicola found this fascinating, and worked hard. Although she had thought she wanted to specialise in antique armour and weapons, she found, when it came down to it, that it was clothing and textiles that really fascinated her, and she found herself taking evening classes in the subject and spending hours in the Victoria and Albert's clothing section. She and Miranda both joined the local Bach choir, and enjoyed singing with them, and the various concerts that were given during the year.
The only fly in the ointment was, unexpectedly, Patrick. He still had another year of his degree to go, but seemed to spend his time coming up to London to take Nicola out. This was very pleasant, of course, but he was becoming a bore by constantly proposing marriage, with no real idea of how they were to fill their time afterwards. Nicola had no idea of getting married – she had her contract to fulfil first, for a start – and got very irritated by this. Finally, just after the Merrick's Twelfth Night party, she snapped.
“No, Patrick, I am not going to marry you. Not now, and maybe not ever. And certainly not ever if your only idea is to go and sit on your bottom at Meriot Chase. Go away. Go right away. Finish your degree, then go and work your way round the world, or something, but go and do something! And maybe, just maybe in five years' time I might consider marrying you, if it's something we both want. But for now, go away!”
Patrick went, and Nicola missed him, badly. But she knew she had made the right decision, and that Patrick really needed to do something with his life before he settled down. One spring day she ran into Anthony Merrick in Victoria Street, and he told her that Patrick seemed to have settled down and was finally working hard for his degree. “Although he won't, of course, be able to make up for having wasted most of the first two years.” And after he graduated, Patrick was apparently planning to travel for awhile, supporting himself by working in McDonald's or similar places, and possibly going further afield than Western Europe, if he could either save enough money or support himself.
The year passed extraordinarily quickly. Miranda finished her course at SOAS, and came into the Shop full-time. Nicola's contract specified a year at the Paris branch if all parties agreed, which they did. The vexed question was accommodation, so Nicola wrote to her Aunt Molly asking whether she could stay for a week or so while she found something. By return of post came an offer to stay in the “maid's room” of their apartment, a tiny room up six flights of service stairs, with a cold-water tap and a “Turkish-style” lavatory on the landing; however, it would be rent-free, and Nicola would be welcome to use her aunt's bathroom each day, although she would otherwise be totally independent. Her grandmother was now very frail, and seldom went out, but was delighted to learn that Nicola would be in Paris for a year.
It was a truly wonderful year. Nicola enjoyed herself, if possible, even more than she had the previous year in London. Jean-Luc, the manager of the Paris branch of the Shop was able to arrange for her to do a course at the Paris Fashion and Textile Museum, which she found totally absorbing, although at first she had trouble understanding all that her tutors were saying. Her French improved dramatically, though, and by the time she went home for a few days at Christmas, she was very fluent.
It might, she thought, have been a mistake coming home for Christmas. Only Lawrie, Peter and Rowan were there, apart from their mother, and Peter and Rowan spent most of their time out and about on the farm. Lawrie, who had tried and failed to get a part in the local pantomime, was despondent about this, and Nicola began to find her very trying. She was thankful to escape to the London flat for a few days.
“Oh, Miranda, it was dire!” she exclaimed. “Lawrie glooming all over the place and saying she had been quite good enough for a part, even if only a small one. And Patrick is apparently working in a theatre in Prague, of all places, which has rubbed salt into the wound a bit, even though he's not an actor and has no ambitions to be one. Quite how he got a job in Prague, I am not going to enquire!”
“No, indeed. I wonder why he went there. Personally, I'd steer well clear of the Iron Curtain.”
“Me too, but Patrick always has to be different. If you and I were working our way round Europe, we'd be working in a McDonald's or a Bureau de Change or something in Vienna or Munich, perhaps, but not in a theatre in Prague.”
“So tell about Lawrie. Is she going to make it as an actor, do you think?”
“Who knows? I think she's realising that being the star performer at school is something rather different to being a professional actor. But the Port Wade college isn't at all bad, and a lot of their people have gone on to work in soap operas and so on. It's really about getting your first break, I gather, or getting an agent to take you on. Anyway, we shall see.”
Nicola returned to Paris very early in the New Year of 1989, glad to have a good excuse to miss the Merricks' party. Not that Patrick would have been there, but she didn't know whether it would have been worse if he had, or if he hadn't. She wondered, sometimes, what he was doing, and how he was finding life behind the Iron Curtain, something she had real trouble visualising. She had not formed any serious relationships since breaking up with him, although there were several young men happy to take her out whenever she wished, she never allowed any relationship to go beyond friendship.
As the Spring came, she began her first, tentative, buying expeditions, haunting the flea markets at the Porte du Clignancourt and elsewhere, competing with established antique dealers for bargains. Sometimes she had a disaster, but more often than not, she found something that could be restored and sold at a profit. She began to trust her own judgement, especially concerning fabrics and clothing, although she was developing an eye for “bibelots”, too, distinguishing those which were valuable from those which were merely pretty.
Reuben came over during June for his annual visit to the Shop, and to discuss Nicola's future with her. This was when she discovered that Jean-Luc was reluctant to let her go, and wanted her to stay in Paris. There were advantages to living in both cities, of course, but Nicola thought that, on balance, another six months or so in Paris would be very pleasant. After all, she would probably be living in England for the rest of her life, and might not get other chances to work abroad. Eventually, they agreed that she would spend an extra nine months in Paris, taking her to June of 1990, and then a final year in London. Her formal apprenticeship was now at an end and Reuben rewarded her with a substantial pay rise, meaning that she could leave the maid's room and rent a studio apartment with fewer stairs. “Even maybe a lift!” she exclaimed. With Jean-Luc's help, she found a furnished studio only a few Métro stops away from the Shop, and spent a happy few days settling in. The maid's room was let to a student from England, and Nicola's visit to her grandmother's apartment, frequent though they were, tended to be mainly for Sunday lunch!
The Shop closed for two weeks in August, as so many Paris businesses do, so Nicola came home. A week at Trennels was enough for her. She was beginning to realise that much of the fun and enjoyment she associated with living there was actually due to Patrick – riding, hunting, hawking, were all things she had tended to do with Patrick rather than with her siblings, except for that year when he had been distracted by Ginty. But then there had been Edwin's children to amuse and to do things with and now that they were no longer living nearby, there seemed a dearth of things to do. Lawrie, having finished her course, had secured a tiny part in a television drama and was off filming with the company. Peter had finished his course, too, and was preparing to take over the running of the estate, while Rowan was busy making arrangements for her wedding, which would be just before Christmas.
“It's a quiet time of year on the farm, which will make it easy for Peter to take over, plus Daddy will be coming home on leave and can give me away,” she told Nicola. “You don't want to be a bridesmaid in yards of frilly lace, do you?”
“Heavens, no!” exclaimed Nicola, in tones of deep horror. “I can't see you wanting frilly bridesmaids, either!”
“I don't, of course,” said Rowan. “I'd actually prefer to wear a plain business suit, but Mum says that simply Won't Do, and I have to have a proper wedding dress. But I absolutely refuse to look like a large meringue – the plainer the better. And no bridesmaids or maids of honour, which Ann and Lawrie are very indignant about. That's why I asked you if you wanted to be a bridesmaid – if you had, I might have felt obliged to rethink!”
“Not me,” said Nicola. “I shall come, of course, assuming I'm invited – I'll have to go back to France on Boxing Day if I can, though, as I'll be having the whole week off. But not as a bridesmaid, thank you very much – I'd have had to have invented some crisis at the Shop, I think!”
Rowan laughed. “Sensible woman!”
But soon, after that, Nicola went up to London to stay with Miranda for a few days before heading back to Paris.
Jean-Luc had planned to go on his annual trip to a Trade Fair in West Berlin at the beginning of November, leaving Nicola and the saleswomen in charge of the shop, but two days before he was due to leave, he slipped on the stairs and fell heavily, breaking his arm and spraining his ankle rather badly.
“You will have to go in my place, Nicola,” he told her from his hospital bed. “You have my list of contacts, and you know the sort of things I am looking for. Yes, of course you can do it. Someone has to go and you might as well jump in the deep end. Besides which, with all the people being able to get to West Germany through Hungary and Austria just lately, there may be some bargains to be had. Oh, read the newspapers! They are all full of it. Stay safe, though.”
So Nicola arrived in West Berlin on the 8th of November 1989. She spent the next couple of days at the trade fair, visiting the contacts on Jean-Luc's list and finding several items she thought worth buying. On the evening of the 10th, she dined quietly in her hotel, and was planning an early night, when the streets suddenly exploded in noise and people shouting and running. “What is happening?” she asked her waiter, in her careful German.
“The Wall is coming down!” he exclaimed. “Go and see – I am coming as soon as I can!”
Nicola grabbed her coat and joined the crowds running up the street. She was not too far from the Brandenberg Gate, and suddenly became aware of people climbing up on to the Wall, from both sides. Without even thinking what she was doing, she ran up to the wall, and friendly hands from above and below helped her climb up. She stood on top, and, along with others, leant down to help people from East Berlin climb up, too. There was singing and dancing and rejoicing. All thoughts of going to bed vanished. History was happening, and she was right there in the front line.
But history or not, the body has needs and Nicola was hungry again after several hours' singing and dancing on top of the Wall. She assumed there would be an all-night restaurant, or at least a fast-food joint open somewhere in the area. So she turned to the person next to her to ask for help getting down. It was Patrick.
“But what on earth were you doing?” she asked, an hour later, when they were sitting in a café that had opened early and was doing a roaring trade in coffee and breakfasts.
“Well, I'm working in East Berlin, you knew that, didn't you?”
“Actually, not," she said. "Last I heard, you were in Prague. I haven't seen your family for ages; they weren't around last time I was at Trennels."
“Yes, I was in Prague. Before that I was in Bonn, but the opportunity came up to go to Prague, and I got a visa, and then about three months ago I got a visa for East Germany – I'm thinking of moving on now, but that's nothing to do with tonight. But the theatres have been getting more and more involved in politics, demanding more say in government and so on. Last week there was a huge, huge demonstration in the Alexanderplatz, and we thought it might turn nasty, but it didn't. And people have been protesting more and more, and leaving when they can, or saying they want to stay but they want it to be their country. And, I don't know why tonight, or what happened, but there were enormous queues of people demanding to be allowed through the border crossings, and suddenly they were opened. I thought of going through, just because I could, but then I thought it would be far more fun to come to the Brandenberg Gate and see if we were allowed near the wall. And then there were people from both sides on top of the wall. So I climbed up, and next thing I knew, you were standing next to me!”
“Oh, Patrick! This is so amazing, isn't it. Not just us meeting, I don't mean, well, that too - but all of this... If the wall does come down – and I don't see how it can stay up, after this – well, it's – I mean, my whole life there have been two Germanies.... the whole Iron Curtain/Cold War thing.”
“Don't count your chickens,” said Patrick, sombrely. “I'm not quite sure why they haven't cracked down before now, but they still might.”
“So what are your plans?” she asked.
“I must go back, if I can, give in my notice to the theatre company – I was going to leave, anyway – and then I think I'll go back to England until after Christmas, anyway. Then I'll see, and see what's happening. Maybe I'll try and get a job somewhere completely different – the South of France, for instance, or Italy. What about you?”
“I go home – to Paris, that is – tomorrow, no, later today, now – but I'll be going back to England for Rowan's wedding. Long-term, I'm in Paris until June, and then I am contracted to work in London for at least another year, until August 1991.”
“So you'll be at Trennels for Christmas?”
“At the moment, only between the day before the wedding and Boxing Day – I'm flying back on Boxing Day. Trennels hasn't been much fun these past two years.”
“And whose fault is that, I'd like to know?” Patrick grinned at her. “Listen Nick – I need to apologise. I was seriously awful two years ago, and I know it. Your sending me away like that was just the kick in the pants I needed. I was so afraid I'd lost you forever. I missed you, you know.”
“I missed you, too, Patrick. There hasn't been anybody else for me.”
“No, nor for me. Could we – could we be friends again, do you think? No pressure about marriage or anything, but maybe thinking about it in a couple of years, when you've worked your contract and I've found a proper job, not just unskilled labouring. What do you think?”
“I think that sounds like a very good idea. So will you stay in England now, or will you still go abroad after Christmas?”
“I'll tell you that when we meet at Rowan's wedding! For now, though, if you have a plane to catch you'd better go and have a shower or something before you catch it, and I need to see if I can get back.”
“Yes, of course. Oh Patrick – you will be careful, won't you? And will you write? What's your address?”
Nicola flew back to Paris that afternoon, wishing that she could stay in Berlin another few days to see how it all came out. But no matter what happened in the world, for her, forever after, the day the Berlin Wall came down would be the day she and Patrick came home to each other.