The love story starts here. A gust of wintry wind scattered the leaves from the trees in the garden. From her window, Jacqueline Anderson watched as they fell into a mournful huddle on the lawn. Then the rain began. Sighing, Jacqueline turned away from the window. Autumn was so depressing.
Once it hadn’t been. Once she’d loved the sharpness in the air, and the warmth and coziness indoors as the house took on its winter character with the shortening days and colder nights.
She’d loved even the leaves then, and had often gone walking with her daughter, Debbie, crunching across the red, brown and gold carpets in the park. But that was a long time ago when John had been there to share the laughter and the fun.
Bleakly she sat down and plunged the needle through the tapestry she was making, but she couldn’t concentrate. Debbie clattered down the stairs and burst into the room.
” Mommy, what can I do now? ” Debbie was small-boned and fair like Jacqueline. But she had her father’s gray, intelligent eyes and his quick, impulsive movements. She was eight. When John was killed, she was only five. She skipped across the room. ” Mommy, what can I play at now ? ” she asked plaintively.
Jacqueline sighed. Keeping a bright, active child like Debbie amused on wet days was a perennial problem .
” Have you finished the jigsaw then? ”
” Yes. It was easy “
” Well, Debbie, I really don’t know. Have you read that new book Stephen brought you? “
” Yes. ” Debbie nodded. ” Is he coming today ? ” she added hopefully.
” Of course, darling. He’ll be here shortly, I expect. ”
” Staying for tea? ”
Jacqueline smiled. ” I should think so. He usually does, doesn’t he? ”
As she spoke, her thoughts turned to Stephen Jenkins who, as Debbie put it, was their ” best friend. ” A ripple of uneasiness ran through her. A couple of times lately when Stephen had called she’d had the feeling there was something more he wanted to say, but couldn’t. And when he left at the end of the day, she’d sensed something had been left unsaid.
She was sensitive enough to guess what it might be. A man didn’t lavish attention on a person the way Stephen had on her for nearly a year unless he was serious. Jacque line knew he was going to ask her to marry him. And she felt guilty about her tacit encouragement, for she knew she couldn’t marry him. Yet because she had let things drift, she could hardly end the relationship until he brought things to a head himself.
She knew now she should never have let Stephen into their lives, never have let him take Debbie to the zoo and other places, or let him take both of them out. And she should never have let him do odd jobs around the house for her, all the practical things that John had done and that it had seemed natural to let Stephen do.
She was aware that she’d made use of him, that she was going to hurt him, and she hated herself for it because he deserved better than that. But it was too late to do anything about it now.
” Mommy? ” Debbie’s tone was impatient. ” What can I do? ”
Jacqueline thought for a moment. ” I know, ” she said, ” you’re so good at tidying, why don’t you do the drawers in mommy’s dressing table? They’re in a terrible state, all the cosmetics and jewelry mixed up. ” She paused, then added as an incentive, “ You can have any odd earrings you find and a bottle of perfume. ”
Debbie did a little skip. ” Oh, mommy, can I really? ”
“Off you go. ” Jacqueline smiled. Debbie loved jewelry and would strut about in front of the long mirror like a queen, wearing dangling earrings and dabbing herself with perfume.
As Debbie scampered back upstairs, depression settled back on Jacqueline. Maybe she would cheer up when Stephen arrived, she thought. And really it was hard not to be cheered by Stephen.
He was big and cheerful and seemed to fill the cottage with his large frame. He smoked a pipe and there were always traces of tobacco aroma left the next day, but Jacque line didn’t mind; it was comforting somehow, as though he was still there.
Stephen ran a bookshop in the town five miles away and it had been there, looking for a particular book one day, that she’d got talking to him. He had ordered the book for her, and when it had come in, he’d brought it out to her personally. That day they’d chatted like old friends over a cup of tea, and gradually he had slipped into her life.
But it hadn’t occurred to Jacqueline until recently that he might want to marry her. She’d seen him only as a good, kind friend.
He brought her new novels and biographies, and he always had a stream of hilarious gossip and stories to entertain her. When he was there, the house seemed to come alive, but that, she thought, was only because it was so quiet all week, especially now that Debbie was at school and she was alone with her tapestries and weaving.
She had become interested in spinning and weaving after Debbie was born and she had given up work. Then, afterward, when it had become necessary to bolster the small pension John had left her, she’d turned her hobby and her designer’s training into quite a lucrative business. And Stephen had helped there, too.
He’d found new outlets for her work and kept an eye on the business side of it for her. He’d said that as he had to do his own account books for the shop, it was no trouble to do hers, as well. She’d been grateful not to be bothered by profit and loss and taxation and hadn’t considered the dangers of involvement.
Now, however, she realized she could no longer take advantage of his friendship.
Stephen came at five . Jacqueline heard the crunch of his car wheels on the gravel in the driveway. She ran to the door and pulled it open as he slowly came up the porch steps.
“Hello, Jackie,” he said, smiling. “How’re things? ” He dropped a quick kiss on her cheek as usual and filled her arms with flowers, beautiful red and gold chrysanthemums.
“Stephen, you shouldn’t,” she admonished, “They’re so expensive!”
“Flowers,” he said fondly, “are never expensive for people who appreciate them.”
She smiled. That was typically Stephen. He always managed to pay her compliments without making them sound false or overfamiliar.
“Where’s my best girlfriend ?” he asked as he came into the hall.
“Here I am, Stephen !” Debbie bounded down the stairs and squealing happily, was scooped up in his arms. ” I’m clearing out mommy’s dressing table. ” She rushed on, in a simply awful mess! ”
“Hey, you’re not supposed to tell tales. “Jacqueline laughed, her earlier gloom dispersing.
Stephen set Debbie down. “Well,” he said, “you’d better get on with it or you won’t be finished in time for tea.”
” We have a surprise for you for tea, ” Debbie replied se creative. ” It’s your favorite! ”
His eyes twinkled. “Debbie, how did you know I liked oysters?”
“It’s not oysters, silly,” Debbie said, giggling.
“Off you go now,” Jacqueline put in.
Debbie ran back upstairs. Jacqueline and Stephen moved into the sitting room.
“I’ll get a vase for the flowers,” she said, leaving him for a few moments.
“Is your work all right ?” he asked from the armchair as she came back and started to arrange the flowers.
“Yes, very well. I’ve nearly finished that big order for London.”
“You’re really doing quite well with the store there, aren’t you?”
Jacqueline smiled. “I make a living.”
Stephen glanced at her quickly, “You shouldn’t have to, “he said quietly.
She concentrated on arranging the flowers. “Why not? I enjoy working”
“I didn’t mean that. Of course, you should work if you enjoy it, but you shouldn’t have the sole responsibility.”
“I don’t mind being the breadwinner, “she interrupted quickly. “Isn’t responsibility and independence supposed to be what we women want?”
“Is that all you want, Jackie? “He was looking at her keenly, and she knew then that he was going to ask her today. It saddened her to know that he probably would never come again. Debbie would miss him.
Really , she told herself, she ought to marry him for Debbie’s sake. He was good and kind and Debbie adored him. And wouldn’t she be less lonely and depressed if Stephen was there every night, always available when she had a problem or just wanted someone to talk to?
Yes, there were a million reasons why it would be sensible for her to marry Stephen – but there was one very big obstacle. She did not love him.
She had loved John too deeply and completely ever to love anyone else like that.
“I’ve been thinking” Stephen began, and she panicked.
“It must be time I put the kettle on,” she broke in brightly. “I expect you’re hungry. Debbie insisted on getting your favorite walnut cake today.” Nervousness had made her speak without thinking, and she added guiltily,” But pretend it’s a surprise. I wasn’t going to tell you!”
“So that’s it!” He grinned.” You both spoil me.”
“You spoil us,” Jacqueline replied. Then because that seemed too much like an invitation for the conversation to return to its earlier thread, she rushed on, ” Come on out to the kitchen while I get things ready.”
He followed, watching every move as she busied herself. She talked brightly about her week. There wasn’t a lot to tell, really, but she was able to turn one or two encounters with neighbors and tradespeople into anecdotes that amused him. She didn’t want to leave any opportunity for what he might have been about to say, although she knew it was only postponing the inevitable.
Eventually, there was a pause in the conversation that she was unable to fill and he said, ” Jacqueline. ”
Just her name, but something in the way he said it brought a wave of apprehension.
“I’d better call Debbie,” she put in quickly and turned away.
He stopped her before she reached the door. His arms held her tightly and his eyes looked deep into hers. She realized she was shaking slightly, her mouth dry. ”
“Jacqueline, just a minute. I want to talk to you.”
“ Mommy! Mommy! ”
With relief, she heard Debbie calling, and as Stephen’s hands fell from her, she turned to face her daughter.
“Yes, darling, what is it?”
“Mommy, look what I found! Aren’t they beautiful? You could wear them if they were mended. Do you have a needle and some thread so I can restring them for you?”
Shocked because she hadn’t expected this, Jacqueline just stared at the open heart-shaped jeweler’s box in her daughter’s hands. Debbie shifted it so Stephen could see. ” I love pearls, don’t you ? “she said.” You’ll look beautiful in them, mommy.”
“Yes, “Stephen replied softly, “she will.”
Jacqueline stood stock still. Neither of them knew what this was doing to her. She had forgotten she had stuffed the box in the drawer one night when the phone rang. She usually kept the pearls on the top shelf of the wardrobe with her other mementos, only once in a while taking them down to look at them and weep.
Now she stared at the smooth round pearls and everything came flooding back only it was worse because of the unexpectedness of it.
She’d been wearing the pearls the night of the accident. A policeman had recovered them from the wrecked car with their other belongings and given them back to her. There had been several missing.
John had given her the pearls for her birthday. And that evening they had been going out to dinner to celebrate and, of course, she had worn them.
Up until then, she’d never been superstitious, but often now she thought how true it was what they said, that pearls were for sorrow, and all her sorrows lay in that small, heart-shaped box.
The only clear memory she had of the accident was of the thread snapping, the pearls scattering, just as the thread of her life had snapped and her dreams had scattered.
Now the pearls were a symbol of everything she’d lost. She could never bring herself to wear them again.
“Mommy, have you got a needle? I want to make a necklace for you,” Debbie insisted.
” No ! “she said, too sharply. “Put them back where you found them, Debbie.”
“I said no, now do as you’re told!” Jacqueline snapped.
Stephen was looking at her anxiously. He must wonder at her making such a fuss, she thought, so she said more reasonably, ” They really need to be fixed by an expert, darling. Perhaps one day I’ll take them. Now, hurry up, tea’s ready.”
That night she looked at the pearls in the drawer and left them there. They might as well stay there now, she thought wearily. Once again Stephen had gone away leaving everything unsaid. She sighed as she got into bed. “I couldn’t love anyone else but John,” she said out loud.
When Stephen came the next weekend, he took them out for a drive in the country. Later they found a lovely tea room with low oak beams and a stream outside where they had tea. The proprietor thrilled Debbie by showing her the old millstones and how the mill wheel worked.
Although they were often alone together when Debbie scampered ahead in search of wildflowers, Stephen said nothing, and Jacqueline wondered if he had realized somehow that she didn’t want him to.
Perhaps he would just go out of their lives as quietly as he had come in. The thought saddened her, but she knew there was no alternative.
Back at the cottage, when Stephen went up to say good night to Debbie, there was a good deal of giggling and this pering and Jacqueline guessed they were discussing her birthday present. Her birthday was the following week and Debbie loved to make a big fuss of her. But apparently this year Stephen was to get whatever she had decided on as a present.
Jacqueline would have preferred Stephen not to know when her birthday was because he was sure to bring her a present, too. He couldn’t know what bitter memories the day had for her. With a strange feeling, she looked at the two conspirators as she entered Debbie’s bedroom.
They looked so close, almost like father and daughter. Debbie, she realized, could give her love without feeling isloyal. And at that moment, Jacqueline almost wished he could, too.
The following Sunday morning, Debbie rushed into her bedroom and threw her arms around her neck.
” Happy birthday, mommy. I can’t give you your present because of Stephen’s bringing it, so you’ll have to wait till lunchtime. He’s coming around then.”
Jacqueline hugged her. ” I’m sure it’s worth waiting for. ”
After Debbie had run out, she got up feeling depressed. She went to the drawer to look at the pearls and then shut it again before she’d half-opened it. She mustn’t be morbid today, she told herself. Stephen was coming and she must hide her feelings until he had gone.
As soon as he arrived, Debbie ran to him.
“Was it ready? Was it ready ?” she asked excitedly. He nodded.” Yes, and here’s the card. You’d better sign it.”
The card was duly inscribed by Debbie and the ceremony of presentation carried out.
“Happy birthday, mommy, ” Debbie said solemnly, and Jacqueline smiled at Stephen. He was a dear, letting Deb pie wrap him around her little finger. She took the small oblong parcel and kissed her daughter.
” Thank you, darling. Now, I wonder what it can be! ” She turned it over, shook it, listened to it, felt it, went through all the traditional ritual before opening it while Debbie, beside herself with excitement, shrieked, ” Open it ! Go on, open it, mommy! ”
“It won’t bite, will it?”
Debbie giggled. “Of course not, silly.”
Slowly, tantalizingly, Jacqueline tore off the fancy wrapping and looked at the box inside. It’s a fountain pen, she was thinking, just what I need, the darling. Then she opened the lid ready to exclaim with delight and almost dropped the box as she stared, horrified, at Debbie’s present.
The pearls! Her pearls. John’s birthday gift to her. Only now they were beautifully and expertly restrung, the clasp cleaned and brilliant. Her pearls … mocking her from their bed of white satin.
“Stephen got them done professionally as you wanted, “Debbie said proudly, “and it cost quite a lot. Actually I had to borrow fifty pence from him.”
“Mommy, are they all right? Are they the way you wanted?” Debbie’s voice tailed off in disappointment and tears welled up in her eyes as she realized that her marvelous gift had not given the pleasure she had hoped.
Jacqueline could do nothing. She felt bewildered, deeply hurt. For it seemed that a terrible outrage had occurred, a sacrilege had been committed.
A great wave of emotion broke over her and with one anguished and accusing look at Stephen she placed the pearls on the table and ran into the kitchen.
She heard Stephen say quietly, “Run out and play in the garden for a bit, Debbie. Mommy will be all right in a minute.”
“She doesn’t like them,” Debbie cried. “She doesn’t like my present !”
Jacqueline gripped the edge of the table to steady herself. And then Stephen was standing there looking at her with anguish in his eyes.
“What’s wrong, Jackie ?” he asked gently.
And suddenly she was crying on his shoulder, pouring out the whole story, all the heartache, and bitterness and what the pearls had meant to her.
“I couldn’t wear them, ” she said. ” How could I? I never wanted them to be mended … but Debbie isn’t old enough to understand.”
“And she shouldn’t have to,” Stephen said with a harshness that shocked her. “You can’t live in the past, Jackie. It just keeps tripping you up and you’re the one who gets hurt.”
“I’m sorry. I-I can’t help it. ”She shook her head slowly and began to cry again. It was no good, he’d never understood. It had not happened to him.
But this time he didn’t hold her soothingly, He gripped her arms and pushed her away, looking into her face directly.
“Jackie, you can’t parcel your whole life up and put it away in a drawer like the pearls, to take out and weep over every so often.”
“No, “she said, “it isn’t that simple. My life was John, and John is dead.”
“John is dead, ” Stephen replied, his voice soft now. “You have to accept that, Jackie. Your life isn’t finished, it just has to be different. You have to face the fact that memories, however precious, are only memories and no substitute for reality. He smiled gently. ” Jackie, all you need is an expert rethreaded, too.”
” What ?” she asked faintly, but she knew very well what he meant.
“I may not be as expert as the pearl threader, ” he said, ” but if you give me a chance …. He tilted her chin with his hand. ” I love you, Jackie. I love you very, very much.”
The words echoed through her mind and she suddenly had the oddest feeling, like a smile starting somewhere deep down inside her long before it reached her lips. It wasn’t what Stephen said, but how he had said it. It had the effect of shuttling her feelings all about like one of those puzzles Debbie had where the little silver balls had to fall into their right places.
“Oh, Stephen” she whispered her head against his chest.
“I don’t mind if you don’t love me, “he said. “I honestly believe that will come in time. ”
She looked up at him. “I believe so, too,” she replied softly. She was still uncertain of her feelings, but she knew now something had been slowly happening to her all this past year, but she had refused to admit it.
Stephen held her close for a long moment and then led her quietly back to the sitting room. She didn’t flinch or recoil when he picked up the strand of pearls and gently clasped it around her neck. Then he dropped his hands to her shoulders, drew her close and kissed her, not a friendly peck on the cheek this time, but a truly loving kiss, and somewhere deep inside her she felt a faint stirring of response.
Debbie came in from the garden and stood in the doorway, tentative, puzzled, and still hurt. “Mommy.”
Jacqueline ran to her, kneeled down and hugged her tight. “Debbie, darling, thank you for a wonderful birthday present.
Debbie fingered the pearls doubtfully. “You do like them, after all?”
” I love them, ” Jacqueline said.
” It was the most beautiful idea and the best birthday present I ever had. ”
Debbie’s eyes lighted up and she smiled with satisfaction. ” I thought it would be, ” she said happily.
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