Publication Date: 30th April 2022, eBooks / 30th May 2022, paperbacks
Publisher: Rossdale Print Productions
Page Length: 394
Genre: Historical Fiction (1864 – 1910)
A boy with his head in the clouds. A man with a head full of dreams.
1884. The symptoms of scarlet fever are easily mistaken for teething, as Robert Cooke and his pregnant wife Freya discover at the cost of their two infant sons. Freya immediately isolates for the safety of their unborn child. Cut off from each other, there is no opportunity for husband and wife to teach each other the language of their loss. By the time they meet again, the subject is taboo. But unspoken grief is a dangerous enemy. It bides its time.
A decade later and now a successful businessman, Robert decides to create a pleasure garden in memory of his sons, in the very same place he found refuge as a boy – a disused chalk quarry in Surrey’s Carshalton. But instead of sharing his vision with his wife, he widens the gulf between them by keeping her in the dark. It is another woman who translates his dreams. An obscure yet talented artist called Florence Hoddy, who lives alone with her unmarried brother, painting only what she sees from her window…
Robert’s hat is in his hands. “I wanted to enquire how Ida’s visits are going.”
Miss Hoddy – there is no invitation to call her Florence – is at her easel. She doesn’t set aside her brush. She wasn’t sitting here idly, waiting for him – or anyone else – to call. She doesn’t ask, You don’t mind? Won’t you take a seat? Instead she weighs each of Robert’s words: “To enquire how Ida’s visits are going.”
Repeated back to him, they sound ridiculous. “Exactly,” he says.
“You didn’t think to ask Mrs Cooke?” Miss Hoddy angles her head; closes one eye and uses her brush to take a measurement. Robert is very aware of the nape of her neck; the soft wisps of hair that refuse to be tamed. “If I stop, the light will change and the piece will be ruined.” Without turning her head, she has read his mind. Freya calls Florence your Miss Hoddy, but this woman is so entirely her own person, it’s impossible to imagine her belonging to anyone.
He looks out to the garden, finds the shaft of light, sees how it is interrupted by the branches of a pear tree. Already she has the tree and the box hedge, and there – there is the sundial. (The scene comes back to him, the prize-giving, Miss Hoddy choosing to look at Ida rather than the camera.) With only a few fine brushstrokes she captures the slant of the rays. Light, filtered through leaves, dissected by branches. Perhaps, Robert thinks, it will never fall this way again. “Don’t stop on my account.” He stands hat in hand until it seems more awkward not to speak than to say something. “Ida seems to be enjoying herself,” he ventures.
With just the slightest sound from the back of her throat, Florence adds a dab more white to the yellow ochre she’s been using. Such subtlety. The light on the canvas is as real as the light in the garden but, come sunset, the canvas will not fade.
“How would you feel if I were to ask Ida to sit for me?”
Air forces itself through Robert’s nostrils.
“The idea amuses you?” She glances at him, the briefest moment, catching him smiling and uncouth.
“The idea that Ida might be persuaded to sit still.” Would it be acceptable to put his hat down? Miss Hoddy can hardly object if he puts down his hat. He clears his throat. “That sounds like something Mrs Cooke would want to be consulted about.”
“Your wife doesn’t like me.” She doesn’t look at him. Apparently she has no interest in seeing how her words land.
“Does she not?” Robert, too, has sensed this.
“No.” Miss Hoddy is matter-of-fact, not seeming to care one way or the other, or caring only for her painting.
“I don’t think she likes me terribly much either.” He is thinking of how he said to Freya, ‘It isn’t the boy’s fault.’
How her lips tightened and she avoided looking at him. ‘No one is suggesting that it is.’
‘I can’t not call him by his name.’
When he went to put his hands on her shoulders, she shrugged him off. ‘No. No you can’t.’
‘Tell me what to do.’ But she didn’t have an answer, and still he is not forgiven. They live their lives edging around things that cannot be said, the hurt emerging occasionally, unable to comfort each other.
“She doesn’t like your project.”
This observation brings Robert back to the moment. That Miss Hoddy would put it so bluntly takes his breath away. “Did she say so?”
“She didn’t need to. Also,” she looks about her, “she disapproved of my room.” This judgement, as something earned, appears to please her.
“With or without saying so?”
“Without. She glared at my clutter.”
“Ah,” he says. “Mrs Cooke has perfected the disapproving glare. I give her plenty of cause for practice.” If it is a betrayal it is surely a small one, intended only to lighten the mood.
“Why are you really here, Mr Cooke?” The finest of brushstrokes, dragging rather than painting. What was opaque becomes translucent.
“I’ve been meaning to call on you.”
“Then this is a social visit!”
“I wondered if you might like to come and see what I – that is to say, we – have made of your design. I thought you might have some final suggestions.”
“So it’s my professional eye you’re after?” A darker shade now. Robert sees that this is what was missing. All that was missing.
“Yes.” He has been moving the brim of his hat through his hands the way the parakeets navigate the bars of the aviary. “I mean no. No.”
“You weren’t thinking of inviting a photographer or two?”
Robert cringes to think back at his presumption. But to have put a stop to it, to have said, ‘Perhaps we don’t need a photograph after all.’ What would that have implied? “Just you. And your brother if he’d like to.”
“How are the paths?”
“Very flat. You might,” he suggests, intending to be generous, “like to bring your easel.”
“This is my view of the world.” Her voice is severe, as if she’s repeating something she has been told over and over again and has begrudgingly accepted. “This is what I paint.”
“Of course,” Robert says, though he thinks her quite wrong.
“You think me accepting.” She says it plainly and with great dignity. “I’ve had to reckon with the loss of the life that used to exist for me.”
There is no reply Robert can give, so he bows his head and says nothing.
“Ida tells me that your parakeets make quite a racket.” Her voice is transformed, as if his daughter’s name makes all the difference.
He clears his throat. “Worse than peacocks.”
“Will you speak to your wife about Ida? I wouldn’t paint her face. I can see how Mrs Cooke might object to having her daughter’s portrait hanging on someone else’s wall.”
“You sell your work?”
She turns to him, eyes ablaze. “How else do you think we live? Charity? A rich benefactor?”
“I –” He feels himself turned inside out. Miss Hoddy is not accepting. She is provocative, defiant. It would be vulgar to ask – indeed, it’s none of his business – but Robert hopes the prize money has made a small difference to their circumstances.
She (Florrie, Florence, Miss Hoddy, he’s confused how he ought to think of her) doesn’t expect a reply. The corners of her mouth curl into a smile. “You thought my painting was a nice little pastime, didn’t you?”
She has him. He’d admired her work. Known it to be good. No, good sounds so patronising. Here, in front of her easel, Miss Hoddy isn’t crippled. (Is there no better word than that?) She has all the movement she needs. What Robert means – what he really means – is that her work wouldn’t look out of place in the Royal Academy. Not that the Royal Academy admits lady members. They prefer battlefields to botanicals.
“The view would be of Ida’s back. I would have her at play. Perhaps here.” She points with the fine bristles of her brush to the left of her canvas, leaving the tiniest dab of yellow in the grass. A buttercup.
“It’s for this painting?” Freya will know about the society for female artists. She went to one of their annual exhibitions. Robert makes a mental note to ask, then perhaps he can make a suggestion that might actually be of use.
“A commission. From a Mrs Griffiths.” Miss Hoddy says the name as if it is caught between her front teeth.
“I know her.” One of Freya’s circle. Church flowers and parlour-gossip.
“She wanted something green. To match her wallpaper.” Miss Hoddy adds another rebellious touch of yellow. Now he sees. They aren’t buttercups. Mrs Griffiths’ verdant lawn is to be blighted with dandelions. “You know, arsenic is used in the compounds that give green wallpaper its colour.”
“And poppy juice in paint.”
He is pleased to have finally impressed her. “I wonder, would you consider a small commission from me? It wouldn’t be a painting.”
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Hailed by The Bookseller as ‘One to Watch’, Jane Davis writes thought-provoking literary page turners.
She spent her twenties and the first half of her thirties chasing promotions in the business world but, frustrated by the lack of a creative outlet, she turned to writing.
Her first novel, 'Half-Truths and White Lies', won a national award established with the aim of finding the next Joanne Harris. Further recognition followed in 2016 with 'An Unknown Woman' being named Self-Published Book of the Year by Writing Magazine/the David St John Thomas Charitable Trust, as well as being shortlisted in the IAN Awards, and in 2019 with 'Smash all the Windows' winning the inaugural Selfies Book Award. Her novel, 'At the Stroke of Nine O’Clock' was featured by The Lady Magazine as one of their favourite books set in the 1950s, selected as a Historical Novel Society Editor's Choice, and shortlisted for the Selfies Book Awards 2021.
Interested in how people behave under pressure, Jane introduces her characters when they are in highly volatile situations and then, in her words, she throws them to the lions. The themes she explores are diverse, ranging from pioneering female photographers, to relatives seeking justice for the victims of a fictional disaster.
Jane Davis lives in Carshalton, Surrey, in what was originally the ticket office for a Victorian pleasure gardens, known locally as ‘the gingerbread house’. Her house frequently features in her fiction. In fact, she burnt it to the ground in the opening chapter of 'An Unknown Woman'. In her latest release, Small Eden, she asks the question why one man would choose to open a pleasure gardens at a time when so many others were facing bankruptcy?
When she isn’t writing, you may spot Jane disappearing up the side of a mountain with a camera in hand.
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