This story is very old and very dear to me. If you have read any of my other projects, you may recognize some of the ideas herein, so you can know that this is where they were born.
“It is an aching kind of growing.”
John Steinbeck, East of Eden
LETTERS TO ELLIOT HAWTHORNE,
THE ONLY SON,
HALLELUJAH, GOOD LUCK
“O bright-eyed Hope”
(or the Character Sketches)
If anyone had heard of Bower, they knew about the hills that wanted to be mountains, the valley and the tunnel they created; the wind and the cove and probably the sheep. And if anyone had visited Bower, they had heard of the Lumleys, their horses and their son, Thomas. The Arnolds, the inn-keepers, used this to their advantage.
In the hub of Bower, where there were shops and restaurants and townhouses made of red brick, there were only three places for visitors to sleep. People who booked rooms were businessmen, city-dwellers and out-of-towners who needed the comforting proximity to a highway or a bank or a doctor’s office. The others, the families with small children who wanted a getaway, of course having heard about the Hills, the Cove and the Beach, opted for the Arnolds’ inn; The Worthing on the hem of the hub, surrounded by farmland and the Lake.
These visitors either came for the Lumleys’ horses or for the Arnolds’ inn, and in either case the Arnolds and the Lumleys referred one to the other, both profiting from their informal partnership. The Worthing was just down the way from Lumley Farm and because the Cove, the Hills and the Lake were such identifying landmarks, without any buildings nearer besides the Inn and the Stables, the homes became monuments, tributes even, to the land and the town; the Arnolds and the Lumleys consecrating their names in the sacred directory of Bower.
It began when Thomas, a Lumley, met Gemma, an Arnold. And when Thomas first saw Gemma he thought she was a ghost.
Gemma Arnold was not yet fourteen, though like most girls when they are not yet fourteen looked like she had seen sixteen at least. Tom was almost seventeen and he was thinking about leaving Bower for St. David’s to study agriculture at the college.
Thomas Lumley rarely spoke and when he did it usually wasn’t in complete sentences. He didn’t even bother with Yes and No; he simply nodded or shook his head. People assumed he was either very bored or very mad; some even believed he lacked a heart or a brain. But most had heard he was nice, so that was what (they thought) got him through life alright. The older, married women said it was his looks that got him through because he was boyish and tall and serious-looking.
He was in the yard, walking to the barn when a figure dodged through the trees behind him.
Tom didn’t believe in ghosts. He thought all the people who claimed to have seen ghosts were just losing their minds, and he didn’t know anyone who was dead yet so he knew no one could have been trying to haunt him. But the figure came again, just as he entered the barn. He could tell it was a girl this time, so she couldn’t have been a ghost. Tom would have never imagined such a ghostly type of girl. When he thought about girls he tried to make them as real as possible, from what their body temperature would be to what perfume they’d wear. But this girl appeared out of nowhere, without him pre-imagining how hot or cold she was or what she smelled like.
He went outside again. The wind blew as he looked in both directions, scanning the property like a light house, turning his head slowly in a semi-circle and then starting again like a sprinkler. Rain-soaked grass stretched over the hills and up to the house. Drying laundry flapped on the clothesline. Ducks waddled down the garden footpaths and bothered the cats along the way. The tree line past the fields was thick and deadly, especially under the dreary grey sky. But no ghosts.
Tom went back into the barn, making eye contact with each of the horses (this was before they had more than only three). He took a step toward Patriot, the nearest of the bunch, and reached over the wooden stall to pet the horse’s neck. Then there was clicking, a creaking and some cracking. Tom spun on his heels. The door in the back of the barn was open and there was the ghost peeking inside curiously.
Tom frowned; his anxious response to a stranger trespassing on private property, obviously. The ghost froze. Now, if she really were a ghost Tom figured she’d vanish like a magic trick because he assumed ghosts to be very scared most of the time, stuck between two worlds like that. But she stood there, apparently startled by his presence. Of course, Tom thought she was pretty and, of course, he didn’t want her to know that her beauty made him off-balance or weak in the knees but it was so.
The ghost laughed a shy sort of laugh; Tom did not. Then: “My sister wants to learn how to ride a horse,” said the ghost.
“The office is inside the house,” Tom said.
“Do you know how much it’s going to cost?” the ghost asked next.
“The office is inside the house.”
The ghost smiled and then walked outside. Tom stared at the empty doorframe, still frowning, wondering where she had come from in the first place. He knew his parents would know (for that’s who was in the office inside the house) but he was not about to ask them about the ghost because he never wanted to appear interested in a girl on account of Mrs. Lumley priding herself in matchmaking and would, without a doubt, begin the challenge of arranging a date. So, Tom waited until he saw the ghost walk away from his house, down the driveway and disappear beyond the way. Then he went inside where it was warm and light and where supper was ready to eat. He ate roast beef and potatoes and said nothing about the ghost.
The next time they met, the ghost was delivering a card (with money inside) to the Lumleys on behalf of her parents for her sister’s riding lessons. Tom didn’t know this first off, so her presence at the barn late one afternoon surprised him and this is what their conversation was like.
“I’m back,” said the ghost.
Tom said nothing.
“What’s your name?”
Of course, he told her: “Thomas.”
“That’s a good name.”
Tom said nothing.
“How long have you lived here? I love horses,” and, after this, she stroked Patriot’s neck, the horse giving a whinnying snort of approval.
The ghost looked more ghostly today, thought Tom, and so finally: “You’re not dead, are you?” he asked.
“You mean, like a ghost?” she asked. “I don’t think a ghost would know that she’s a ghost, do you? Just like how crazy people don’t really know they’re crazy.”
“I guess not.”
“Then who’s to say anything?” and the ghost smiled.
“You don’t live in the woods or anything, do you?”
“Do I look wood-worthy?”
Tom pictured her inside the forest behind his house, running barefoot with ivy in her hair, flowers in her hand, and laughing. “Kind of.”
“Is that a compliment?” the ghost asked.
“I don’t think so.”
So, he pressed: “Where do you live?”
“None of your business.”
“That’s not fair,” Tom declared. “You know where I live.”
“That’s because I found it on my own,” and she said this rather proudly.
“So, you want me to find out where you live?”
“No, of course not, weirdo. That’d be creepy. Stalking, even.”
“I just want to know you’re not homeless,” Tom said.
“Wouldn’t you still be friends with me if I was?”
“Well, sure, I…”
“Then why care?”
“Because I do!”
The ghost giggled. “You have too much time on your hands, Tom,” and then she twirled, dashing out of the barn entirely.
When Mrs. Lumley went outside to hang clean laundry on the line, she saw Gemma leaving and Tom staring at her, and shouted: “Thomas, have you met the Arnold girl? She’s lovely, isn’t she? I can’t imagine why her parents called her Gemma, putting a G in front of a perfectly adequate name like Emma. You know, my grandmother Mary had a middle name of Emily; that’s sort of like Emma. Do you remember your great-grandmother, Thomas? Of course, you wouldn’t, you were only two. But Gemma’s sister, Rosy, she’s nine and a half. She’s coming later in the week. I suppose Gemma will come too. You’ll be spending a lot of time together perhaps.”
And Mrs. Lumley was right. No one could have foretold the future quite as simply or accurately. Every Thursday nine-and-a-half-year-old Rosy walked down to the Lumley farm from the Worthing with her older sister, Gemma.
The Lumleys’ riding instructor was Poppy; an old widow whose son was Bower’s doctor. Rosy and Poppy got along famously, as did Rosy and Patriot—thank goodness—which left Gemma bored for two whole hours. Befriending the Lumleys’ son was her first idea to pass the time and it was the last idea, too, because spending two hours with him she found far too intriguing to think of doing anything else. Thomas didn’t stop his chores for Gemma. He continued as if she wasn’t there. She talked about everything at once and when her parents asked her how they got along the conversations went like this.
“He’s just the funniest boy,” Gemma told them.
“He likes jokes?” asked her mother.
“No, I mean, strange. I can talk for an entire hour and he never tells me to stop.”
“That’s generous of him,” said her father.
“I like him a lot.”
“I think he’s handsome,” said Rosy.
“He is, but that’s not the point, Rosy. It’s what’s in his head and his heart that counts.”
“How can you know what’s in his head or his heart?” asked her mother.
“I can’t say for sure, but I think it’s his eyes. They’re very honest eyes.”
The Arnolds took their daughter’s word and favoured the Lumleys considerably. They began sending visitors down the lane for an authentic horseback ride through the country and lakeside (because, of course, it benefited the Worthing, adding one more layer of charm to the already charming inn) and they did this so often Mr. Lumley was forced to buy more horses and hire more help. At first, the only payback the Lumleys could offer the Arnolds was Tom. He helped maintain the inn’s lawn in the summertime and keep the walkways and driveway free from snow and ice during the winter. On Fridays, he drove Gemma, because Gemma refused to drive any kind of vehicle by herself, into Bower for errands, and on Tuesdays he drove her forty-five minutes to St. David’s to pick up supplies for her parents. So, with the subject of Gemma, I will begin to describe her like this.
Gemma Arnold was fair; her hair was light as well, but it wasn’t any shade of yellow nor was it completely white. It was nothing like bleach or brown or even sand. Well, come to think of it, it came nearest to sand, but her skin had no freckles like one would imagine a girl with hair the colour of sand to have. Her hair was just light, but by no means stripped of colour; it was natural light, best described like the sun perhaps. I say this because it was her hair and her mysteriously dark-coloured eyes and eyebrows that made her the attractive thing Tom thought her to be. In his mind she was one of the queens or warriors from the Norse stories his father used to tell him at bedtime. Tom didn’t like to read so Asgard was never as real as it could have been to him if he had sat still long enough to sound out the foreign names on paper. He did like it, though, when stories were told aloud to him and he liked those Northern stories about Vikings and Iceland the best. If Gemma’s eyes had been a pale milky blue instead of that strange brown-green that they were then Tom would have thought she was indefinitely one of the heroines in the stories, but, alas, her halo of hair had to do.
But Gemma was good for a lot of things besides to look at. She did the baking to fill the Worthing’s restaurant front counter with cakes and breads, and she was a welcoming face at the front desk in the inn. Her recent conquest was making her own blends of tea and selling them in the souvenir shop with the postcards and the Worthing and Bower paraphernalia. Aside from her skills in hospitality, Gemma was smart; she retained information like a book and felt the need to share it frequently. She could rant for extended periods of time whether she knew Tom was listening or not, on subjects which he then became expert in too.
Tom became well acquainted with the lime tree; as a species and, also, as the grand heap of them in the Worthing’s side yard which Gemma and her cousin called “The Fort”. Gemma never got around to explaining why they called a huddle of ingrown trees which trunks all connected “The Fort” but Tom knew that was its name. He learned a great deal about the ranks in the army, in particular what it meant to be a captain, and soon found out that “Captain” was what everyone called Mr. Arnold because of his time spent in the R.A.F.
Sometimes Gemma would talk about the weather; how dark it was (“We need more street lamps out this way. Don’t you think we need more street lamps, Tom?”) or how windy (“You would think the trees would snap right in half!”) and Tom always managed to say: “It is very dark outside, Gemma,” and “It is very windy today, Gemma,” because Tom always called Gemma by her name when speaking with her.
Her ramblings, for that was what they were, didn’t bother Tom as one would assume ramblings would bother a man like Tom Lumley would, because, of course, he came to love her, even if unbeknownst to him. Gemma loved him too, and her love was instant like most girls’ infatuations are. But they fell in true love when they got older and married and had a family and lived on the Lumley Farm after inheriting the land and the house. Their children went like this: Diantha, Charles and William; and Gemma waited and waited until one of them had a daughter, so they could name her Gemma because Gemma Arnold-Lumley was so fond of her own name that she thought it important to give it to someone else.
It wasn’t until the middle child, Charles, was called on by God to go to the seminary in Grenville to study theology and there he met Katie Müller. Of course, he and Katie Müller were friends and then friends on fire and then were married and had a daughter who Katie, with the upmost respect of her mother-in-law, named GEMMA.
Reverend Charles Lumley and his picturesque wife Katie (who all the ladies in the town admired, almost to obsessive adoration; mimicking her style of hair, dress and accessory every Sunday morning because Katie was beautiful and kind and compassionate) were given on righteous authority to govern the church in Bower from their second year of marriage just as Katie was preparing for Gemma’s arrival. And when the original Mr. and Mrs. Arnold-Lumley went through rough patches of health or finance, Charles (or Charlie as his mother always called him) came home to the Worthing; so, his wife and daughter grew to love its charm just as his mother and father had.
Little Gemma had her grandmother’s blond hair, though it was not as white-blond as in the pictures but rather a honey kind of brown which darkened in the wintertime and lightened in the summer; an animal adapting to the natural turn of the elements. And she loved the Worthing, calling her great-grandfather “Captain” and the trees in the yard “The Fort”. And in the Worthing’s front cabinet and on the tables in the dining hall were always jars of the best blackberry jam in the county. It came from the back gardens of Samuel Weal and it would forever come from the back gardens of Samuel Weal which he kept with his grandson, Elliot Hawthorne.
Returns next Tuesday