Pictures from an Unknown Past

brown paper and black pen
Image from Unsplash taken by Joanna Kosinska

“She isn’t here now,” Kane said. “She was too embarrassed.” He looked at the lady sitting opposite him. It was almost a stereotype. She sat upright, as a plumb line, ankles crossed, hands folded on her lap and not a white hair out of place.

“My mother?” Mrs Kirkdale said. “That is a surprise. She was usually quite direct.”

“I didn’t manage to contact your late mother,” Kane said. “But I managed to get in touch with someone called Ellen. She seemed very fond of you?”

“My sister? She was always good to me, despite the age difference. I miss her a great deal, you know.” Mrs Kirkdale sighed.

Kane wished he knew the right way to approach things. “You got in touch with me about a strange bequest, didn’t you?”

Mrs Kirkdale nodded. “You were recommended by Tim McGuigan. He was the solicitor for my late husband, you know. He’s very practical and not usually one for such mumbo jumbo, so I took him seriously when he suggested that I speak to someone who speaks to ghosts.” She looked doubtfully at the scruffy figure hunched on her chair, then turned her attention to the small bundle of photos and slides. “Apparently there is a lot more of these photos and some letters, if I choose to accept the bequest, along with some money. But my parents and sister left me everything anyway and I invested in a good pension so I’m comfortable. I can indulge my scruples. These look like other people’s memories. I’m not sure that it is right that I have them. It should go to family.”

Kane shifted a little as he perched on the edge of the chintz armchair. He felt desperately out of place and had no idea how to approach the news. “You were fond of Ellen, weren’t you?” he said.

“I adored her,” Mrs Kirkdale’s face lit up with the memory. “She was such fun, you know, although she was nearly twenty years older than me. In fact, I was something of a miracle baby. I don’t think my parents really expected me. They were older and set in their ways.” She sighed and looked over at the pewter framed picture sitting on the windowsill. “Really it was Ellen who brought me up and taught me about life. She was very encouraging and supportive. I always think that she should have had children herself, but she never married. Her sweetheart died in the war, you know. It was right at the end, in Berlin. Ellen never talked about it, well you didn’t, but mother said that it was dreadful luck. They had even planned their wedding. I suppose I gave her something to think about. All I ever knew was that she doted on me.”

Kane took a mouthful of excellent tea from his china mug and summoned all his courage. “Did you ever wonder about your mother being a little older than most ladies giving birth?”

Mrs Kirkdale frowned. “I must have been quite a last gasp as a baby. I think it was a shock. I don’t remember her being affectionate to me, or loving, but she did her duty. It was a different generation and she was set in her ways. She always liked things to be just so, which saved me a few times. She had to be seen as a good mother.” She laughed. “Then I scandalised her by going to university. She didn’t see me working in the labs with the first computers, as she passed away before then, but she would have been horrified.” Mrs Kirkdale shook her head. “And she never met my late husband, either. I’m not sure that she would have approved of me marrying an engineer instead of a doctor or a solicitor.” She took another sip of tea. “Are these evidence of my mother’s indiscretions? If so, I would be very interested.”

Kane swallowed. “These photos and slides are from your father’s family. Not the man you think of as your father, but your real father.”

Mrs Kirkdale stared. “You mean that there really was a scandal? I can’t imagine it! Mother was so proper!”

Kane shook his head. “Ellen said that it was different times, and her mother was very strict.” He hesitated. “She asked you not to blame her. She loves you very much. It’s just that, she is your mother. She thought it wouldn’t matter, as they were supposed to be married the next month, but he got called back to the front line unexpectedly and then he was killed.”

Mrs Kirkdale looked blank. “How dreadful.”

“Ellen said that your mother, that is, her mother, wouldn’t allow her to say anything, so they went into the country and then told everyone that you were a surprise baby.” Kane watched Mrs Kirkdale carefully for signs of shock.

“Well I was, really, wasn’t I?” Mrs Kirkdale shook her head. “Now it makes sense. I always wondered why I was born so far away from the family, and why I wasn’t christened in the local church. My mother, I mean my grandmother, was so obsessed with appearances.” She looked at Tim and smiled. “And Ellen was a wonderful mother! If you can tell her anything, tell her that. Tell her that she still has all my love.” She looked down at the photos. “Thank you. It may seem strange to matter at my age, but it’s a wonderful gift to finally know that you had a mother that loved you.” She shook her head and brought herself back to the present. “And now my late father’s family have found me. That will be fun.” She held out an envelope. “Here is the fee that you agreed,” she said, then hesitated. “And, well, it’s expected that old ladies bake cakes. Well, I can’t bake for toffee, but I can shop at Waitrose like a champ. I hope you enjoy these.” She stood and picked up a large box of assorted luxury biscuits from behind her chair. “Now, I’m sorry to rush you off, but I have a great many phone calls to make.” She smiled at him, looking twenty years younger and full of mischief. “I can’t wait to find out about my family.”

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