Chapter 5

'Lo. I'm rubbish at keeping up with things - even diary-writing, by the looks of it. It's been a busy few days. Busy in my head, anyway. I reckon I'm allowed a bit of forgetfulness.

Of course, I got home from the woods the other day in a properly weird mood - that conversation was deep! I mean, bloody hell - it's not often that a girl gets told she's, like, the only thing that can save forest-kind or whatever it is they say in the films. No doubt in a ridiculous voice, with lots of echoey bits.

So yeah - hahaha, I'm the Guardian of the Forest, wouldn't you just bloody know it? Of course I am. I'm rolling my eyes a lot right now, believe me. Insert hollow laughter here, and all that. I mean, W.T.F???? See, in a movie or book or something, the heroine would take all this calmly in her stride, probably understanding immediately what it is she has to do. Then she'd get on and do it, all whilst convincing her family and friends that there's nothing stranger going on than maybe a new fondness for hillwalking. Or something.

But guess what? Yup, I live in the REAL WORLD, people! The world where suddenly being keen to get out of the house raises eyebrows, where mooning around looking dreamy and pale (like Movie Girl would no doubt do) would mean instant humiliation from an irritating small brother.

So I need to play this one cool. Apart from anything else, I'd quite like to avoid being sectioned. My parents are tolerant, but even they would call in outside help if I started waffling about parallel universes and saving endangered, I don't know, squirrels, with the help of undead men who visit old ladies on their deathbeds. Tell me honestly, does that sound normal to you? Huh? Exactly.

I left it a day or so, then mentioned to mum that I'd had a dream about Aunt Maggie and wasn't it strange, given that I'd (obviously) not seen her for years.

"I don't know so much," says Mum, "she was always fond of you. Considering how often you saw her I guess it's not really a surprise she's stuck in your head a bit."

Mmmm. You bet she's in my head. "Thing is mum, this dream was really clear," - may as well push it as far as I can, now - "it was as if she was trying to tell me something."

"Probably one of those old folk tales she used to like reading to you. Well I say reading, she knew it all off my heart - you'd think she'd written them herself sometimes."

More like she did all those things herself, I muttered under my breath, but smiled winningly (I hope, or maybe I just looked a bit weird, who knows) at mum, who attempted to ignore my gurning and carried on.

"Some of them were a bit much really - more like Grimm's fairy tales than a nice bedtime story for small children. I used to say to your dad that she'd give you nightmares. Never did, tho - you used to just gaze at her as if she was the most interesting thing you'd ever seen in all your life."

Ooh, maybe my toddler self knew more than I do now?

Mum carried on - "I haven't really given her much thought since she died, to be honest. I always thought she was a bit batty. Harmless, tho - and obviously we inherited this house from her, so I'd never complain. Kids and animals always liked her - she'd take in anything stray, whatever it was.
"I remember a young lad that used to visit her" - ow owwwww, I bit my lip then, I just bet she's talking about Finn - "we used to warn her that she'd be taken advantage of one day, but she wouldn't hear of it. Said she knew him better than we did and we were to leave him be. Orphan, I think he was. Not sure where he lived, must have been over the other side of the hill somewhere. Long gone now though, I should think.
"No, that's a lie - he came back once. You might remember actually - it was when Aunt Maggie was ill, towards the end. Just after we'd moved in here with her" Mum said that bit like a question, as if she was asking me to confirm what she was remembering. I just tipped my head to one side and stroked Flora, who'd climbed on my knee and was kindly attempting to shred my tights with her claws.

"Yes, I remember...he called at the back door and asked - really politely, mind - if he could see Maggie, just for a minute. Well I didn't think he should, what with her being so poorly. But she must have heard us talking - she started banging the floor with the stick she kept by the side of the bed. When I went to see what she wanted, she said I was to let him up to see her, that she needed to see him before she 'left', as she put it. I wasn't sure about it, and I was nervous to be honest - I didn't know him from Adam! But anyway, I let him go up and I could just about hear them talking together. I swear I heard her laugh - she'd not had the strength to do anything but whisper for weeks.

"He didn't stay long - came back down all smiley and thanked me for letting him in. And he spoke to you, Lily, I remember now! Smiled and said 'See you soon Lily', or something. I suppose Maggie must have told him your name. Pleasant lad he was." Mum looked a bit vacant for a minute there, I wonder if she'd fancied Finn herself? Ohhhh ICK!

"So he left and Maggie never explained any of it to any of us, not even your dad. She died the next week, anyway." Mum looked sad, but only in that way that adults do when they're supposed to be sad, you know? As if she was fond of Maggie, but her death was about on a level with a pet dying - briefly upsetting, but soon over with. I suspect she was just as pleased to get the extra bedroom back - she uses it for painting and stuff now, it's Her Room.

Mum was clattering around with pans for dinner by this point, so I made a show of shifting things around on the table as if I was tidying up. Anything to keep her talking without making my curiousity too obvious.

"Have you got any pictures of Maggie?" I was dying to see what she looked like, my memories were far too fuzzy - all I could recall was a hunched lady with grey hair, not exactly a precise description.

"I bet we have, actually - there's a box of her old papers and stuff in the attic. Ask your dad nicely and maybe he'll get it down for you after tea. I can't see why you shouldn't have a look through it all, it's not as if there'll be anything secret in there." Mum smiled indulgently, whether at me or the old lady she was remembering, I wasn't sure.

Meantime I was hoping that there was loads of secrets to be discovered amongst Maggie's belongings, even if they'd only have deeper meaning to me with my newfound knowledge. Can you imagine how edgy I was through tea? Dad was grumbling about something or other to do with work and I was desperately hoping that he'd be in a good enough mood for me to ask a favour. As it happened I didn't have to - Mum did it for me. Go mum.

"Bob, I was talking to Lily earlier about Maggie - can you remember much about her?" Swivel eyes to dad, look interested-but-not-too-eager...

"What do you want me to remember? She was ok I guess. Could be a right battleaxe when she chose, mind. Do you remember when the company up at the big quarry wanted to excavate more of the hill?" - this to mum, who was nodding vaguely - "I bet they had a shock when they realised how determined she was to stop 'em! Thought they'd easily get the better of a little old biddie, so they did - must have been a surprise when she turned up at the meeting with all the research, and that bloke from the wildlife trust, or something. Fancy a massive company like that being stopped in their tracks just 'cos some rare flower was growing in one tiny patch!" Dad grinned, despite himself. "You've got a lot of her in you, Lily - kind hearted but sodding bloody-minded when you get riled." Dad rolled his eyes theatrically. Cheers dad, har har.

"Anything else, Miss Nosey?" Errrrrm...yes, actually. "Well, mum reckons there's a box of Maggie's stuff up in the loft - any chance of you getting it down for me? It would be a cool family history subject, I reckon." Useful to remind the folks that I'm supposed to be educated occasionally...

Good old dad, he's ok so long as you stay out of his way when he's knackered. He got the box down and just dumped it in my room, no questions asked. I told them I was going to have a root through it all then have an early night. Ignoring the pointed requests to actually have said early night I grabbed Flora and scuttled up to my room, locking the door behind me to be on the safe side. I mean, you never know - maybe a deranged genie was going to pop out of an old envelope and dance round my room or something? It's not the strangest thing that could happen, given current circs.

Talk about dust! The last time I'd sneezed so much was in Finn's caravan. Which reminds me, I must find some cushions out of the endless pile that seems to grow in the airing cupboard. I'm sure mum won't realise a few have gone. And I've got to start spring cleaning that boy's home out, honestly. If I don't I'll end up allergic or something and I am not missing out on the most exciting (rather than terrifying, hopefully, fingers crossed and all that) adventures of my life because I've got a runny nose...

So....Maggie's life, all in a heartbreakingly small cardboard box. Mum reckoned her clothes were in a trunk up there somewhere as well, but the paperwork would do for now. Saying that, there was a silk scarf bundled up with the first pile of letters, it had been used to tie it all together. I undid it and put it to one side - it would be a pretty colour when it had been washed.

The first pile turned out to be disappointing - solicitor's letters, bank statements, that sort of thing. I already knew that other than the house, Maggie had left nothing but a small amount of cash that was in my dad's name - we'd been on a caravan holiday on some of the proceeds. In fact the details of it were right in front of me - a letter from 'Farr & Co., Sol's', stating that the sum of five hundred pounds was to be given to 'Robert O'Reilly, Esq.'. It seemed oddly impersonal seeing my dad's name written out like that, but it was nice to hold in my hand an actual link to the lady who was so much in the front of my mind.

The next pile was more interesting - gardening notes, full of neat little scribbles reminding herself not to plant beans by the hedge the next year, because the rabbits came through and ate the seedlings; a list of which fruit had done best (blackberries, by miles - I wondered idly if Finn's tale of the miraculously-cleared bramble bush still applied), and a small, plain notebook containing rough sketches of where she intended to plant a fruit orchard. I realised with a start that the drawings referred to the apple and plum trees that still grew at the back of the house. There was a couple of nut trees as well - the big walnut grew outside my bedroom window, close enough to tap the glass on windy nights. It used to scare Cally half to death, but I like it. Don't tell anyone, but I sometimes pretend that it's my unfeasibly (and imaginary) gorgeous boyfriend, come to see me in secret. Oh, hang on...
Heheheee, made myself snigger then, how very unladylike...

Right, back to the impromptu history lesson. A big brown envelope, coming apart at the edges. Jackpot! Photographs - lots of them, by the looks of it. I tipped them very unceremoniously out onto the bed and spread them around with my hand. Flora gave me a Look and delicately removed herself onto the armchair in the corner, evidently planning to make a bed out of my unsorted laundry.

Some of the pictures were surprisingly recent - a couple even had me on them. The first one showed me as a tiny baby - I only knew it was me because I recognised the babygro I was wearing from other family photos. I was sitting happily in the arms of a woman with a shock a of grey hair and a humorous expression on her face. So this was Maggie, then.
I scrutinised the picture for any clues. But clues to what, I had no idea. I pushed the newer photos aside and decided to concentrate on the dozens of older, faded prints that had also spilled out of the envelope.

There were loads of images of the garden, looking very bare and basic compared to the mini market garden it now was. I could guess the order in which they'd been taken by the size of the shrubs and trees in them.

Sometimes Maggie herself was in the picture, looking surprisingly smart for someone whom I'd imagined to be - what? A permanently ancient old crone? Of course she'd have been young at some point, strange as it was to imagine now. In fact she was a bit of a looker, was Maggie - all long fair hair (it looked red, but I couldn't tell for sure) and athletic-looking in fitted sweaters and trousers. What was it that mum used to call them? Slacks, that was it. Maggie would definitely have been a 'slacks' lady, I reckoned. Straightforward and determined as well, from the expression on her face. She smiled directly at the camera - in some pictures she looked as if she was trying not to laugh at something. Or somebody.

Something went 'ping' in my head. It does sometimes, and not always just because I've been playing music too loud (which is not making me deaf, no matter what the parents say). Anyway, a massively huge ping - what if the photographer was Finn??? Maggie was looking towards whoever it was with an expression of, I dunno, comfortable adoration? I can't explain it, even to myself. But she looked so settled, as if she had complete confidence in both herself and the person she was looking towards. Kind of how I felt when I was in the caravan. Well, maybe not entirely comfortable in myself, not yet, but I felt sure of Finn.

And that's how Maggie looked. Sure of herself, and of Finn. Because by now I was certain that it was him behind the camera. Maggie had been single for all her life as far as I knew ('spinster', mum called her - what a horrible word), but I knew from what Finn had told me that he had been her companion for a lot of that time.

This house was hidden from outsiders enough for noone to need to know who Maggie had visiting. Or staying over, even.

I shoved a creeping feeling of unease to the back of my mind and reached for the next few pictures. The first few had fallen out upside down, so I flicked them over.

And for a split second, my heart stopped beating. For there, looking back at me with his twinkling eyes and floppy hair, was Finn. My Finn. Smiling for the camera in exactly the same way as Maggie had been before him, eyes creasing in the sunlight. My stomach lurched - I'd wanted to find out more of the story, but maybe there was more than I actually wanted to know.

Almost against my own will, I slowly turned over the next photo. I should have expected it really, but I still felt my heart skip another beat. They were both in the picture - they must have set a timer on the camera. Maggie and Finn, arms around each other, looking for all the world like a cliched Happy Couple. Only something jarred, and it didn't take me long to figure out what it was.

Attractive though she might be ('handsome' was more the sort of phrase I'd use, I think), Maggie must have been at least in her mid-fifties when the pictures were taken. It was miles before I was born obviously, but even with my limited knowledge of fashion history I could guess that the clothes she wore were about forty or fifty years behind the current styles.
But Finn looked exactly the same as he did the last time I'd seen him, just two days previously. I mean, exactly. Nineteen, maybe twenty years old, quite possibly even wearing the same clothes.

So - what? Well I mean, it's bloody obviously 'what', isn't it? Maggie and Finn were together. As in, 'together'. Bloody hell. In triplicate. Jeeeeeeeeeez-uss. Etc.

Umm. yes. Well. I took the photo of Finn on his own, and tucked it inside a book that I'd left on my bedside table. The others I scooped together and slid back into the envelope. Feeling more than a little bit dazed, I threw everything randomly into the cardboard box and shoved it into the corner of the room. Flora was on the windowsill waiting to be let out - for such a pretty cat she's a proper killing machine by moonlight. I opened the window for her, catching it on the tip of a walnut branch as I did so. The stupid thing caught on the frame and I slapped it out of the way with unnecessary force, snapping the tip off as I did so. I found myself muttering 'sorry' at the tree - this forest-caring stuff is getting to me already.

With one last glare out into the woods, I shut the window and pulled the curtains tight. Still feeling stupidly grumpy I decided I may as well just go to bed, and flounced my way around the room, kicking things out of my way as I went. Everything just felt, well, confusing. There was just too much to get my head around and I wasn't in the mood to think it all through properly.

I got under the duvet and pulled it over my head in a manner which would have been quite dramatic had anyone actually been there to witness it. After a few minutes I muttered and put my hand out of the covers into the chilly darkness.
I felt for the book on the little table, and pulled the photograph out. With a sigh I slid the photo under my pillow and fell asleep.

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