Chapters 17 – 18  In the Garden at Briarfeldy Manor; Ravensglen Hospitality

Previously in Hold Gently the Shadows: Preface, Chapters 1 – 3, Chapters 4 – 6Chapters 7 – 9, Chapters 10 – 12, Chapters 13 – 14, Chapters 15-16

 

Chapter Seventeen

Seated on one of the garden’s marble benches, Alistair was putting away his paints when Paola joined him in the serene enclosure behind Briarfeldy Manor. When he saw her, he pushed himself to a standing position, and leaned on his cane. “You’re just in time for a garden tour,” he said. “It’s how I get my exercise.”

“I didn’t know you were into gardening,” she said.

“Mavis is tutoring me on plant identification while my physiotherapist is encouraging frequent, short walks, so the combo works well,” said Alistair.

“Your painting is … imaginative,” said Paola, inspecting the artwork drying on the easel.

Alistair laughed. “Yeah, I’ll never be an artist, but painting is good fine-motor exercise. I feel better when I avoid attempting realism and pretend I’m mastering impressionism or pointillism.”

“You’re amazing, Alistair,” said Paola.

“I wish,” said Alistair. “You usually see me at my best. Poor Dad gets to see the whiny, complaining side of me.”

Alistair stumbled over an indentation in the lawn, and Paola instinctively reached out to stabilize him. He pulled away, insisting he didn’t need assistance. When their footsteps shifted from grass to pathway, he began his tour monologue. He spoke with unhurried deliberation, his speech dramatically improved since he’d left the hospital.

“You’ll notice the majority of garden beds have been cleared for the upcoming winter months,” he said. “Most of the remaining plants comprise decorative borders. I should point out the purple and white alyssum between the stepping stones we trod. The combination of flower and stone creates a magical path running through Briarfeldy’s garden.”

“Fairy-like,” agreed Paola.

“Next, we come to the large herb garden, personally nurtured by Mavis, the Fairy Queen herself. In the summer, Mavis grows basil, Greek oregano, rosemary, English thyme and parsley, both flat-leaf and curly-leaf varieties. Remaining in her garden even now in October, are parsley, cilantro with its pungent flavour, sage, a pollinator plant which attracts butterflies and bees, and thyme, also bee-friendly as well as fragrant and flavourful.”

Paola laughed aloud. “Gwen will be expecting you to put this knowledge to practical use after you’re married and living in your new house,” she said.

“I hope I won’t be a burden to her,” said Alistair pensively.

“Don’t talk nonsense!” said Paola. “By December, you’ll be gliding down the aisle on your wedding day and waltzing your bride into your new home that night.”

“I guess I told you we’re postponing our honeymoon until next summer,” he said.

“It makes perfect sense,” said Paola. “By summer, you’ll have the strength and stamina to enjoy sightseeing like the carefree newlyweds you’ll be.”

“But before then, I’ll be back teaching in January,” he said.

“You’ll be fine,” said Paola. “Look at the progress you’ve already made. Your speech therapist is incredulous at your speedy recovery!”

“Thanks to my father and Mavis,” said Alistair. “Dad was relentless once he realized my main problem was forming complete sentences. He zeroed in on having me read sentences from books, construct sentences from pictures he showed me, and describe situations he dreamed up.”

“Practice makes perfect,” said Paola.

“Then there was Mavis,” said Alistair. “She insisted I learn all about plants while I was outside working on mobility issues. She didn’t fool me for a second. She and my father were in cahoots. It was all about rehab.”

“Slave drivers,” said Paola.

“Never a moment’s peace,” agreed Alistair. “Shall we continue the garden tour?”

“Let’s go,” she said.

“Ornamental grasses are generously displayed in all the borders,” said Alistair, continuing in exaggerated guide-patter style. “Here we have Mexican Feather Grass with its silvery-green thread-like leaves. Over there, you’ll note the fine-textured foliage of Maiden Grass whose narrow green leaves turn a warm reddish-bronze in fall, or parchment and ivory, depending on type.”

“I love decorative grasses,” said Paola.

“Note how the borders are in colour-coded sections,” said Alistair. “We have a fairly long stretch of pink shrub roses blending into some subdued grasses. Then golden marigolds, chrysanthemums in yellow, burgundy and rust abutting the dense wide flowers of sedum so loved by butterflies.”

“I feel like someone is watching,” said Paola.

“Am I boring you with my extensive knowledge?”

“No, no. I’m impressed,” said Paola. “It’s just that I got all shivery.”

“The gate is locked and we’re alone,” said Alistair.

“I’m fine now,” said Paola.

“Do you recognize these plants?” asked the tour guide. “Hint: there were some in the herb garden.”

“Not really, though I like the silvery green foliage.”

“Sage,” he supplied. “I was told Colin liked the tiny purple flowers and insisted he have his own patch to care for.”

Paola laughed. “Bram and Mavis dote on that child,” she said.

“Next we see the tassel-like purple flowers of Amaranthus cozying up to lavender Asters, noted for repelling deer and attracting butterflies.”

“Have you spotted any deer back here?” asked Paola, teasing.

“They’ve been repelled,” said Alistair.

They continued to wander through the garden, Alistair identifying the plants he could remember from his meanderings with Mavis. For Paola’s amusement, he added the landlady’s descriptive phrasing. Frilly snapdragons on upright stalks, tall purple wands of pink and white Verbena, Mountain Fleece flaunting their crimson-red spikes.

He was about to describe the delicately colourful Cosmos and saucy Pansies when Paola suddenly grabbed his arm.

“Someone is watching,” she whispered.

“There’s no one here but you and me,” said Alistair, glancing about.

But someone was watching. Parked across the street opposite the garden gate, Robin caught glimpses of the pair as they wandered through the garden. Seated in her car, she wished she could hear what they were saying. While she was considering whether or not to cross the street and stand near the gate, she noticed the policeman, Owen, turn into the driveway and enter the garage. Moments later, she saw him outside with Paola and Alistair. The three of them seemed to be sharing a joke as they disappeared from view behind the garden wall.

Then she saw the abbey school bus coming down the street. It was a few minutes early, and no one was waiting outside Briarfeldy for the boy. Robin quickly left her car, crossed the street, and casually waved to the driver as the bus pulled up to the curb. The boy got off, and the bus departed.

“I don’t know you,” said Colin to the woman who met him. “Are you a stranger?”

“I’m a friend,” said Robin.

“How come I don’t remember you?” asked the boy.

“I know Paola Crispo from the library,” said Robin. “I was there when she talked to the writer group.”

“Paola is my friend. Daddy’s too,” said Colin.

“You must know all the people who live inside your building,” said Robin.

“Yes, I know everyone,” said Colin.

“Are there any children besides you?”

“No.”

“No?” asked Robin, disappointed. “Not even a baby?”

As Colin prepared to tell the woman about the baby on the topmost floor, Owen came through the garden gate to meet his son’s bus. He was surprised to see Colin already there talking to a woman he’d seen around town. “Colin!” he called out. “When did you get home?”

“A few minutes ago,” said the boy, running to greet his dad.

“The bus let you off with no one to meet you?” asked Owen in an annoyed voice.

“The lady met me,” said Colin.

“What lady?” asked his father.

“Paola’s friend,” said Colin, looking around. “But I don’t see her now.”

There was no woman, or man for that matter, anywhere in sight. Owen did notice a grey car disappear around a corner. He pulled Colin into a relieved hug and firmly reminded the boy to stay on the bus no matter what until someone from the manor met him. Holding his son’s hand, he entered the garden and locked the gate behind him.

 

Chapter Eighteen

The third memory session was held in Carmen’s apartment during Noah’s early afternoon nap time. Outside the skies were grey, and rain beat against the windows. Alistair was in attendance for the first time, and like the others, told Carmen she had the floor.

“Alistair and I are still priming ourselves to plunge ahead into God-knows-what,” said Paola. “We’ll keep you posted.”

Carmen gazed into the mug of tea Mavis handed her as she thought back on her second day at Ravensglen. “I awoke early that day and found Dorrian and Paisley dressed in readiness for breakfast at the lodge,” she said. “They were so excited.”

“I sent them out, instructing them to bring me back a boxed breakfast as soon as they had eaten. I remember them telling me they’d go outside afterwards so I could write. Knowing that little writing would transpire in my perturbed state, I was making a grocery and supply list when I was startled by a knock on the door. It was Wills, accompanied by Dorrian and Paisley, bringing breakfast in a warming basket.

“Wills explained it was too far and too heavy for the children to carry, and offered to set it out on the table for me. Removing the basket from the man’s hands, I told him I’d take it from there. Wills nodded and turned to leave before I regretted my abruptness and thanked him. When I opened the basket, I could see why it was so weighty. There were scrambled eggs, bacon, pancakes, a carafe of maple syrup, toast, butter, jam, orange juice and a thermos of coffee.

“While the children went off exploring, I spent the remainder of the morning staring at my manuscript and trying to stir myself into action. As noon approached, I decided to take the children into Coltsfoot for lunch and shopping. I stepped outside to look for them, and almost bumped into Emily and Thol. Emily hugged me and said they came to say hello and apologize for not being present when we arrived. She explained she’d had some construction matters to deal with.

“Thol told me he’d been doing class prep in Toronto. He hoped I was finding the environment suitable for creativity. I assured him it was, and invited them inside. Emily wondered if I recognized the decorative pieces in the cottage. I replied that of course I did since everything in her Creekside bed and breakfast was unique. Thol joked about his sister apparently thinking his decorating style needed improvement. Turning serious, he asked me if the service was adequate.

“When I replied that, in fact, it was a bit overwhelming, Emily, defensively said their intent was to make me comfortable, not overwhelmed. Her unexpected attitude rankled me into an indignant retort. I told them I was hardly prepared to have their pack of meddlers set upon me, drug me and take the liberty of arranging all my personal things. Thol made light of it, agreeing the cottagers could be a bit meddlesome. However, he said he couldn’t believe they’d drug me, although they might have given me one of Daphne’s medicinal teas. Emily assured me the teas were harmless, not much different than ones available in a health food store.

“Having regained her amiable demeanor, Emily stated they wanted me settled in quickly so they could activate the plan. As a first step, she had sold her place in Creekside and returned to reside at the lodge. Taken aback, I said if the plan involved my staying at Ravensglen, I needed time to prepare. Until then, I had to stay close to my family. My mother was elderly and my niece and nephew were grieving the recent loss of their mother. Then I remembered my belongings in the carriage house and asked where they were. Emily said they were in temporary storage awaiting my commitment to move here.

“I asked her why she hadn’t told me she was selling the inn. Emily said it was a spontaneous decision made while Thol and I were on tour. She knew I’d love it at Ravensglen, she said, and was counting on me wanting to stay, especially since Thol and I were engaged to be married. It was the perfect place for an author to raise a family. I said, maybe so, but I needed time and space to plan a wedding.

“Emily said I needn’t concern myself with planning, that she had everything under control. When I said I didn’t appreciate being accosted by a wedding planner the previous night, she indignantly told me I should lighten up and be more appreciative. I was shaken by the irritation in the woman’s tone and turned to Thol for reassurance. To his credit, Thol took my side and told his sister, since she wasn’t being helpful, to go back to her greenhouse.

“Emily stormed from the cottage, leaving me perplexed and in tears. I asked Thol if he invited me to Ravensglen in order to trap me there. He apologized for his sister’s behaviour, and said he wanted me and the children to enjoy our holiday without feeling coerced. ‘Nothing more?’ I asked. He sighed, sat down beside me, and admitted there was more. He’d let down his sister and the theaghlach by failing to marry me during the book tour. Now they were pressing him to quit wasting time. As if to justify the situation, he reminded me that Emily and he were the only blood members left in their family.

“I pointed out that sometimes family lines simply come to an end. He shook his head and said that was unacceptable to the theaghlach. Exasperated, I told him the huh-eye-whatever went way beyond mere neighbourliness into the realm of interference and possessiveness. I asked him how he could tolerate having them so involved in his personal life. Thol replied that the theaghlach and Ravensglen co-existed, that their very existence depended on the Wolfe family.

“When I said it was an unhealthy relationship, he laughed mirthlessly. He said I should forget psychoanalysis because the theaghlach were totally absorbed in the urgency of continuity in the Wolfe lineage. His gaze pleaded for understanding, and I had to struggle against the intensity of the feelings he aroused in me. I closed my eyes to regain control, then asked him whether they pressured Emily the same way. After all, they were both tragically widowed, Thol’s wife and son killed in a traffic accident, and Emily’s husband dying in a climbing accident while they were collecting plant specimens.

“Thol told me there was more to Emily’s story. She suffered severe internal injuries in the accident that claimed her husband’s life. The unborn baby she was carrying died, and Emily required an emergency splenectomy and hysterectomy after she arrived unconscious at the hospital. Although I sympathized with Emily and gained a clearer picture of Thol’s predicament, I told him he was, nonetheless, under no obligation to care for the cottagers in perpetuity. He looked at me sadly, disappointed in my response.

“Our conversation was interrupted by my niece and nephew bursting into the cottage. They proceeded to describe their morning of adventure to Thol who listened with patient attentiveness. When Paisley said she was hungry, Thol said it was lunch time at the lodge. I thanked him, and told the kids we were taking the motorhome to Coltsfoot for lunch and supplies. Thol smoothly intervened, insisting there was no need. He’d have a summer student bring over all the supplies we required. We could always go to Coltsfoot another day.

“Needless to say, we lunched at the lodge with Thol. At meal’s end, the children and I returned to the cottage to find the fridge and cupboards well stocked with everything imaginable. It was obvious Thol and Emily did not want me leaving the property. I decided to take advantage of the restrictions on my activities to immerse myself in writing and enjoy the Ravensglen trails whenever I needed a break. In a couple of weeks, I promised myself, I would return to Creekside to clear my head before rushing into marriage.

“Dorrian and Paisley provided me with daily snippets from their conversations with the Vossen girls. I learned from them that the lodge area being updated by Emily had been occupied by the Vossen family. It was the only home November, April and July had ever known. Now they were living in a four-bedroom cabin. On one of my strolls, I was passing Malcolm Darling’s cottage when he called me over to join him on his porch. He asked about my writing and whether I was enjoying Ravensglen hospitality. I assured him everything was fine. Then, testing his opinion about recent happenings at Ravensglen, I asked him how the Vossens were taking their move from the lodge. He replied they were hired staff, not part of our community. ‘Oh, yes, not members of the theaghlach,’ I said.

“The canon regarded me gravely, reminding me the Vossens had not been fired, but had vacated the original family home, Emily’s rightful residence. He added that the Vossens, like Gabe and Rafe, were employees, paid for their contribution to the lodge, and expected to be proficient and accommodating. The theaghlach, on the other hand, owned their properties and paid for winter accommodation inside the lodge. In a gentler voice, he told me Emily missed me and that I should invite her for supper with me and the kids.

“After I returned to Thol’s cottage, I relented and called Emily with a dinner invitation which she immediately accepted. That evening, over a lengthy meal, Emily shared her construction progress. She described in detail how she was modernizing her lodge quarters and building the large attached greenhouse. A couple of universities had already engaged her to teach online courses in ‘Greenhouse Farming’ and ‘Eco Greenhouse Gardening’. I commented that she must have had the project in mind for some time. She agreed, telling me that from the beginning, she was counting on her little world being brightened with me in it.

“On our fifth day at Ravensglen, Thol and Emily paid me another visit ostensibly to ask how I was enjoying lodge amenities. Anticipating what was to follow, I cautiously allowed that I was appreciative of the extraordinary hospitality the children and I had experienced. Emily said that, beyond hospitality, Ravensglen provided a safe haven from the perils of the outside world. I told her the outside world no longer frightened me, to which she said, perhaps it should. I would never find a place on earth that would protect and mollycoddle me as they did.

“I don’t know what possessed me but I blurted out that I’d been meaning to ask them if they knew anything about the death of Logan Glass, the stalker killed at the Antigonish cathedral. They both looked startled until Emily asked why they would. I noted that with all the security we had on the tour, I thought someone might have seen something. Thol said they seldom received security reports. I pressed on, asking about Eric’s denials in Pinery park. He didn’t seem to know about the threatening notes, the paint-splattered tent or the purse-snatching incident in the store, I said. Thol said of course Eric would deny all that, adding that surely I couldn’t think his people were involved.

“Emily rose from her chair and Thol followed her lead. ‘At any rate,’ she said casually, ‘the welcoming ceremony takes place this evening. Seven o’clock in the lodge.’ I asked if they had a welcoming ceremony for all their guests. ‘It’s a Ravensglen tradition,’ said Emily. After they left the cottage, I worried that I might have gone too far with my insinuations, and wondered if Dorrian, Paisley and I should leave before the welcoming ceremony. I related my concerns to the children and they reminded me we didn’t know where the motorhome was.

“I told them I was calling Mavis to say I needed the apartment at Briarfeldy Manor immediately, even if it was not completely ready. I searched around for my phone but could find it nowhere. Alarmed, I enlisted the kids’ help, admitting I hadn’t seen it since our arrival. I had been enjoying the sound of silence too much. Paisley said she bet they took it when they unpacked for us. I feared she was right, but with a forced smile, I told them not to worry. I would ask for it back at the welcome ceremony.”

Carmen turned pale, recalling that fateful day and the unimaginable night to follow. Mavis brought the memory session to an end. She assured Carmen she had done very well, and told her to not dwell on the memories she had evoked. “You can return to them the next time we’re all together,” she said. “In the meantime, focus on the security you have living here in the manor, surrounded by friends. Feel the joy you find in Noah, and the satisfaction you enjoy in mothering him.”

“I’ll be right back after I accompany Alistair to Crawford’s unit,” said Paola. Carmen accepted the offer gratefully. She did not want to be alone.