Maggie, Simone, and Star's father had died as he'd always wanted to: quietly and without ceremony, in his beaten-up van in the middle of a forest in the Italian Alps. His age, like the rest of him, had always been an enigma, though it surprised nobody to learn that he had died just shy of his ninety-sixth birthday; Augustus was one of those curious beings who seemed always to have been old and yet equally never to have aged.
In a handwritten note found tucked into his breast pocket, Augustus had bid farewell to his three estranged daughters and assured them that he had enjoyed a long and happy life, the memories of which he would carry with him into the next world.
The very existence of the note had broken Star's heart. Maggie, the eldest of the three, had called her discordant sisters as soon as she'd received the news of their father's passing.
"But that means he knew he was going to die," Star, the youngest, had sobbed over the phone.
Maggie, who as firstborn was unwillingly cast in the role of materfamilias, tried her hardest to push conviction into her voice. "Not necessarily. He might have carried it around in his pocket for years, just in case," she soothed.
"Dad never planned a thing in his life." Star sniffed loudly. "He was a free spirit. No, he knew he was going to die, I know it. It's too sad. I can't think about it."
Simone, the middle of the North sisters, had been less demonstrative in her grief upon receiving Maggie's phone call, but Maggie could hear the shake in her voice.
"Was he-was he alone? When it happened?" Simone had asked.
"I believe so, yes. But the doctor I spoke to assured me that he died peacefully in his sleep. That's something to be thankful for, isn't it?" It was hard to put a positive spin on the death of a parent, even one who had been absent for most of their lives, but she was giving it her best shot.
"I suppose so," Simone had said. "I mean, I know we weren't close for the last twenty-odd years, but even someone as careless with people as he was ought not to die alone..."
"He wanted it that way. No fuss. Just him and the mountains."
Though it was the truth, saying the words didn't bring Maggie peace.***
The funeral took place on a bleak Tuesday in November; the fat rain and black pregnant clouds felt fitting for the occasion. Despite the weather, the whole of Rowan Thorp village had turned out to honor the man known affectionately by the locals as “The Wizard of Rowan Tree Woods.” Augustus had been roguish and charming and quite frankly a randy old bugger who was adored as much for his sparkling manner as the trouble he caused.
At the front of the church a large picture of the man in question rested on an easel: long white hair pulled back into a plaited rope, a beard to match, a devilish grin, and bright green eyes that twinkled with mischief. His collection of jaunty waistcoats, which he always wore beneath an old tweed jacket, only added to his disheveled country squire image and made him irresistible to any who crossed his path.
Word of his passing had brought a flood of mourners from across the globe, wanting to pay their respects to the man who had been so loved by all and yet known by none-not least his three daughters.
"I thought only royalty got this many flowers when they died," said Joe as he helped Maggie lay out the hundreds of bouquets and wreaths that had been delivered to the church ahead of the service. "I've seen postmarks from as far as Alaska. One of them says it's been sent from a rainforest!"
"My dad was a well-liked man," Maggie replied, standing and stretching out her back.
"Some of these note cards are borderline soft porn."
She smiled. "Like I said, well-liked."
"What did he actually do
when he was off on his travels?"
"Played his lute, read tarot cards, seduced women. He used to take some of the rowan wood from his woods out back and whittle it into love spoons and forest animals."
"Sometimes. Sometimes he gifted them. Really, he did it for the love of it. It was a way of meeting people; who could resist coming to talk to a man playing a lute and whittling in a purple nag champa-scented van?"
"No wonder they called him a wizard."
"I think you two would have got on well. He had a twinkle about him," she said fondly. And then she added, "A twinkle that dazzled so you couldn't see his failings until he had hightailed it out of town."
"What do you mean?"
"Being with Augustus was like existing inside a bubble: magical and perfect. And then he'd disappear, and you'd be left cleaning up a soapy mess."
Despite being a self-styled bachelor, in his twilight years Augustus found himself father to three daughters from three very different mothers. His role in their lives was for the most part transient. But for four weeks of every summer, he would have his daughters to stay with him at his flat above North Novelties & Curios.
"That must have been confusing when you were kids," Joe said, up to his elbows in floral arrangements.
"Not really. You don't question that stuff when you're little. That was just how our family worked." She thought for a moment. "I think I naturally felt it a bit more than my sisters, because they lived in different parts of the country, so for them it was another holiday event like Christmas or Easter. But I lived in the same village as my dad and still only had the same level of contact as they did. We had those four blissful weeks a year and then next to nothing."
"Isn't that a bit..." He hesitated as though trying to find a word that wouldn't be disrespectful to the dead man in the picture beside him. "Cruel? To withhold love like that?"
Maggie's old defenses-spring-loaded and activated if touched-jerked up. "He loved me. He was away most of the time, so it wasn't like he would see me on the street and blank me. I think in his own way he was trying to keep things fair between the three of us." She chewed the inside of her cheek as she remembered how Simone and Star were so jealous of her living in the same village as their dad. "To this day they don't believe that Augustus was as absent for me as he was for them." Or how much more his absence stung, she didn't say. How it crushed her to see the light on in his window and know that her dad was just across the street and yet completely unattainable; it was a tough lesson in emotional self-sufficiency she'd had to learn far too young.
Joe was looking at her like he'd just read a transcript of her thoughts. But he was wise enough to steer the conversation away.
"And your mum?" he asked. "How did she feel about handing you over to your dad for a month every summer?"
"I think she was pleased that I got that quality time with him, even if it was only for a few weeks a year. She used to say she saved up all her boring jobs, like sorting out the accounts and deep cleaning the house, for when I wasn't there. But she went away too, to visit her sister and see old friends. It was a nice break for her. She was a single working mum; how many get a month off a year?"
"You mean to tell me Verity's dad doesn't take her on holidays?" he asked with mock innocence.
Maggie snorted out a laugh and reached across the flowers to swipe at him. She had two children: Patrick, who had turned twenty in the summer, and ten-year-old Verity. Verity's dad-an attractive, unreliable man with a host of emotional hang-ups-had left the scene before Maggie's baby bump was even showing. Theirs had been a short-lived relationship of pure convenience. She might have been desperate enough to have sex with him, but she wasn't stupid enough to think he was partner or parent material. She'd told Joe all this months ago in a "full disclosure" heart-to-heart, which she'd assumed would have him running for the hills. It hadn't.
"And your mum and Augustus never tried to make it work between them?" Joe asked. "They surely must have thought about it, living in the same village."
"Mum never really talked about it. I think she came here originally with the intention of them making a go of it. Only when she finally tracked the elusive Augustus North down to Rowan Thorp, by this time eight months pregnant with me, it was clear he was not a man to be tied down."
"Jesus," said Joe, and then looked over to the altar and added, "Sorry, your godliness," before turning back to Maggie. "She must have been gutted."
She pulled a face. "I honestly don't think she was that sad about it. I don't want to blow my own trumpet, but she got me out of their brief affair, and that was enough. Mum was forty-five when she met Augustus at the Somerset County Fair. She'd given up hope of ever having kids; she'd tried in both her long-term relationships and it simply hadn't happened. Then suddenly she meets this randy older guy and gets pregnant. She told me once that coming here was like a formality, like she had to at least see if he wanted to do the traditional thing. But he didn't, and she was okay with that."
"She stayed here anyway, made a life for you both."
"She fell in love with Rowan Thorp. It was a great place to bring up a kid. And I think she wanted me to at least have a chance at a relationship with my dad."
The guilt crept over her like it always did and she breathed deeply in the hope that it would pass. She had been a nightmare teenager, a caged snarling animal, stifled by the tiny village and angry at her mum simply for being her mum. At seventeen she ran away to follow her then childhood sweetheart-it didn't last long-to Liverpool. As an adult and a parent, Maggie could imagine vividly how frantic her mum must have been. How heartbroken. That was when the first cancer came. She rubbed her hand across her forehead and tried to swallow down the sticky regret that was climbing up her throat.
Joe was there in a second, arms wrapped around her, holding her close. He couldn't know what she was thinking, but that didn't matter; he knew enough of her to know that she needed to be held. She let herself melt into him. His steady heartbeat was a map guiding her back to the present, and at the moment she didn't care if anybody came in and saw them. Joe was her employee and friend; it was perfectly natural that he should comfort her.
"What is it about funerals that thrusts all your previous failings into sharp relief?" she asked, forcing levity into her voice.
"It could be the sudden facing of our own mortality. But it's more likely the worry about what people will say about us in their eulogies."
She snuffled a laugh into his jumper.
"I like to think whoever gives mine will let the congregation know that I was really good in the sack," Joe went on.
"I don't think you're allowed to say that kind of thing in church."
"You did read those condolence cards, right? Pure smut."
"Yes. They very much embraced the sexual revolution."
Now it was Joe's turn to laugh.
She let herself linger just a little longer in his embrace and then pulled away. "Come on," she said, bending to wiggle a giant bouquet of crimson gladiolus into place. "It's going to start filling up in here soon. I need to be at the door for the meet and greet."
"Will Simone and Star help you?"
She puffed out a sarcastic breath. "Like they've helped so far?"
"I see your point. I'll stand with you, then. I know I never met your dad, but you shouldn't have to shoulder it all on your own."
As the only one of Augustus's daughters who lived in Rowan Thorp, it made sense that the bulk of responsibility for dealing with their father's death and all arrangements thereof had landed with her. Though she suspected that even if she'd lived in the Outer Hebrides, she would still be bearing the largest weight.2
The note in Augustus's pocket had included an addendum, which requested that everyone at his funeral wear brightly colored clothes for the occasion. His wishes were enthusiastically adhered to, mostly by the female mourners. Eccentric women of a certain age wore their hair in various rainbow hues and had eyebrows drawn on with unsteady hands; when a breeze blew through the chapel a sea of multicolored kimonos billowed up and flapped like rows of Tibetan prayer flags. Anita-who worked in the local council office and had helped Maggie with the spools of red tape that followed death-had been struck down with a migraine brought on by the clashing colors and psychedelic patterns. Doreen-dedicated member of the Cussing Crocheters of Rowan Thorp-said she'd not seen anything like it since taking LSD in the sixties.
The church where Augustus's humanist funeral ceremony was held was standing room only. The crowd spilled out onto the lawns in front of the church, and speakers were hastily erected so that the people outside could hear. St. Swithun's formed the head of a medieval triangle of buildings in the village, the Rowan Tree Inn and the Stag and Hound Tavern-the two village pubs-making up the other two points, with a largish patch of green in the middle of the triangle. This area was known locally-possibly blasphemously, but it had stuck all the same-as Holy Trinity Green because you could walk out of the church and straight into either pub for a pint. Many of the mourners that day took advantage of this auspicious proximity and raised their glasses to their fallen friend, getting merrily sozzled during the service, just as Augustus would have wanted.
"Shouldn't we be sitting with your mum?" Evette whispered. The service had not yet begun, but people were taking their seats in readiness. Simone had guided them toward a pew away from all
Simone shook her head. "I did ask, but she said there was no need. I think she’s enjoying the attention."
"I’m not sure Rene likes sharing the spotlight with Star’s mum,’"Evette noted.
Simone smiled sardonically. Rene and Star’s mother Perdita had a pew to themselves, a little distanced from the rest of the mourners, singled out in a kind of hierarchy as the chosen few who had birthed Augustus’s children. Other than both having procreated with Augustus, the two women had absolutely nothing in common. To try and make conversation would have been futile, so neither tried.
"I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many eccentrics in one place. I’ve never been able to get my head around your mum and your dad together. Poor Rene sticks out like a sore thumb."
"It's not like they ever had a relationship,"said Simone. "I was the product of an 'ill-conceived affair.' One for which she was left to carry the burden
Evette winced. She of all people knew the long-term effects Rene’s careless words had had on her daughter. Rene didn’t speak from a place of meanness so much as a brutalist honesty; hers was a tongue sharp as a cracked lemon sherbet, and her only daughter had inherited it. Rene, by her own admission, was simply not the maternal type. So, whilst she took great pains to ensure that her daughter was well taken care of, emotionally she simply didn’t have it to give. When Simone had read Great Expectations
for her A-Levels, she felt she had found a kindred spirit in Estella.
"Except for one whole month of every summer," said Evette. "That’s more than most mums get off a year."
"My mother lived
for the summer. She took herself off for luxury vacations somewhere hot and fabulous."
"I’m surprised she didn’t object to letting you stay with your sisters."
"What, because she’s such a snob?"
"Well, yes. I mean, I’d have thought it would have rankled her to have you mixing with his other illegitimate children."
"Not enough to keep her from her holidays." Simone felt bad as soon as she’d said it.
Rene was by no means a bad or selfish mother, and Simone would be lying if she hadn’t got a kick out of having the most glamorous mum at the school gates.
The air in the church was thick with the scent of flowers which almost masked the underlying smell of old varnish, damp stone and mothballs.
"It was really quite modern, when you think about it. To have such an open approach
to the blended family dynamic. Fair play to all the mums and your dad. And you got to spend quality time with your dad and sisters. I love it when you talk about your summers; it always reminds me of an Enid Blyton novel – without the xenophobia and sexism obviously. Ice cream for breakfast, climbing trees, sleeping under the stars. It’s the childhood most of us wish we’d had."
"Nothing’s free though, is it?" said Simone. "There’s always a price to pay."
Despite their more recent estrangements, Simone couldn’t deny that she had perfect memories with her sisters in Rowan Thorp. Their summers genuinely were halcyon days. It was a children’s paradise, mostly because their father was himself a glorified child. For Simone, those summers had been the complete antithesis of life with Rene.
Copyright © 2023 by Jenny Bayliss. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.