Authors: Rose Alexander
The Alentejo, Portugal 1934
I am InÃªs BretÃ£o and I am 18 years old. Now that I am finally an adult and soon to be married, I feel like my real life is about to begin. I have decided to document everything that happens to me, for my children and my grandchildrenâ¦
As Sarah Lacey reads the scrawled handwriting in her great-aunt's journal on a trip to Portugal, she discovers a life filled with great passion, missed chances and lost loves â memories that echo Sarah's own life. Because Sarah's marriage is crumbling, her love for her husband ebbing away, and she fears the one man she truly loves was lost to her many years agoâ¦
But hidden within the faded pages of the journal is a secret InÃªs has kept locked away her entire life, and one final message for her beloved niece â a chance for Sarah to change her life, if she is brave enough to take it.
Garden of Stars
has had more careers than is probably strictly necessary, including TV producer/director making programmes for all the major broadcasters, freelance feature writer for publications including
and secondary school English teacher, not forgetting cocktail waitress, melon picker and interior designer.
Writing a novel is, however predictable the line seems, the realisation of Rose's childhood dream and the result of finally finding âa voice'. The triumph is that the voice was heard above the racket created by her three children plus rescue cat (tabby white, since you ask).
Follow her on twitter at
Thank you to everyone who helped with this book â too many to mention individually but you know who you are! And of course to my family, whose support is always invaluable.
For my daughters
With all my love, forever
Table of Contents
If I could have put you in my heart,
If but I could have wrapped you in myself,
How glad I should have beenâ¦
by D.H. Lawrence
The Alentejo, Portugal
The steel blade of the machado slices into the tree with delicate precision. Another blow, from above, immediately follows. The two polished, fan-shaped axe heads send flashes of light glinting between the overhanging branches as the rhythmic strikes continue, keeping perfect time with each other until reaching the crescendo.
Stepping forward, a tirador uses the wooden handle of his machado to prise away the bark. A cracking, tearing sound ensues as the large, rectangular slab of cork peels from the trunk like the skin from an orange and tumbles gently downwards as if in slow motion. It lands with an emphatic thump and a groan on the scrubby undergrowth, sending a cloud of mosquitoes whirling upwards from their daytime hideaway.
The sky above the ancient forest is a fierce, unyielding blue, the soil underfoot a dry and sandy brown. Birds, disturbed by the disruption to the habitual deep silence of their home, call raucously through the trees, their clamour competing with the ringing shouts of the harvesters and the continual thudding of their axes.
In the Alentejo region of Portugal, the cork harvest takes place every year as it always has, over centuries and through generations. A cork oak tree can live for up to two hundred years and will yield up its bark sixteen times or more during its lifespan. Such capacity for renewal, regrowth and regeneration is unsurpassed in nature.
There is a saying here and it goes like this:
“If you are planting for yourself, you plant vines.
If you are planting for your children, you plant olives.
But if you are planting for your grandchildren, you plant cork oak.”
How are you? All well I hope.
I have a commission I'd like to offer you - 5,000 words following the story of natural cork from tree to bottle. It needs a Portuguese speaker which is why I thought of you. You'll need to set up interviews in Lisbon, Porto and at a cork farm.
Let me know if you can take this on and we can talk details.
In her office at the top of her house, Sarah Lacey read and reread the email, the thrill of anticipation causing her stomach to leap and dance. A story to write about something important, interesting, worthwhile. Some meaty research to get her teeth into. Decent money. It was the most exciting commission she'd been offered in a long time, putting her back on the radar of editors looking for writers, giving her a career boost just when she needed it after having had time out for the children. It would not be easy, though; there was so much to sort out, so many logistical arrangements to make, from organising childcare to booking flights, hotels and car hire. She'd need to seek out the best interviewees, find the most compelling locations and draw up schedules. She began urgently tapping search terms into Google, bringing up web pages from cork producers and port wine makers, noting down key facts and figures that might be useful for the article. She spent a long time looking at maps; so many years had passed since she'd been to Portugal that she'd forgotten where some towns lay in relation to others, and it was incredible to see how the road network had developed.
Eventually, however, she could not marvel at new motorways and bridges any longer and pretend to herself that navigating them was the only thing that concerned her about taking the job. The doubt that had lodged itself in her stomach the minute she saw the destination the article required began to spread, icily and insidiously, through her veins. There was a reason she had not set foot in the country since her gap year. Her hands fell still on the keyboard, and she stared at the screen with sightless eyes. Maybe now was the time to face up to what had happened so long ago, to confront the ghosts of the past. Could you hide from your own history forever? A whirlwind of jumbled memories and emotions flooded her mind, tearing her in different directions, making it impossible to discern a clear path.
The bleep of a text coming through startled her out of her reverie. Instinctively, she picked up her phone and, in so doing, caught sight of the time. She swore out loud; she had been so engrossed in her thoughts that she was going to be late for school pick up. Grabbing her jacket and pulling it on as she shut the front door behind her, she headed down the road, half running, half walking, her head full of a potent mix of dread and excitement.
The playground was full of the usual cliques, the small talk the same as ever, the âhow are yous?' and âfine, thanks' that govern social interaction. Sarah's preoccupation precluded her from joining in beyond what politeness dictated. She was glad that the children had already exploded out of their classrooms before she had arrived so that she could focus on scooping them up and checking they had remembered their coats and book bags rather than engaging in any conversations. Honor was in Year 2 and Ruby in Reception, and as always they were full of energy, their excited chatter about house points and ukulele lessons and playground scrapes demanding Sarah's attention and temporarily thrusting thoughts of Portugal away. It seemed too early to go home, the long hours until bedtime too long to fill alone, and Sarah felt the sudden need to share her news with someone, even if she were still so uncertain about its outcome. InÃªs, her beloved Portuguese great-aunt, the reason for her connection with that country, would love to see them all. Perhaps her calm and composure would soothe Sarah's fractured emotions.
She turned to the girls as they exited the playground gate. “Let's go and see
“Yes!” shouted Honor and Ruby in unison.
“Chocolate biscuits?” added Ruby, hopefully.
Sarah laughed. “We'll see.”
They took the path along the bottom of Parliament Hill Fields to InÃªs's house. Freed from the constraints of roads and pavements, traffic and ambling shoppers, the girls raced ahead on their scooters. It was well into spring but the wind blustered down from Kite Hill and Sarah drew her coat around her. They passed the cafÃ©, busy and crowded, windows misted by the fug of hot coffee and warm bodies. A toddler drew a smiley face in the steam and Sarah smiled. She hadn't been this way for weeks, not since Easter when she and the children had come after days of enforced inactivity due to rain that had been biblical and unceasing. The first clear skies had brought them out, InÃªs too, but when they had got to the cafÃ© they had found it closed for the holiday, chairs piled on tables, doors locked tight shut, a feeling of desolate abandonment about it. It was good to see it full of life again.
Another gust swept across the heath and Sarah shivered. It would be hot when she went to Portugal, she reflected, and then stumbled as she realised that one part of her seemed to have made the decision to go whilst the other still prevaricated. She felt a sudden, visceral longing for the heat, the sort that seared through the skin and pressed down like an enveloping blanket, the way it had through that long, languorous, scorching Lisbon summer. The temperature had built day by day from the moment she had first arrived, driven on by InÃªs's stories of her proud and passionate country, desiring to experience it for herself. Portugal had promised â and delivered â so much more than Sarah's dreary London suburb, with its dull rows of red brick terraces, boarded-up shops and rain-sodden, unkempt parks and playing fields.
It was because of InÃªs that she had gone there, so InÃªs should be the first to know that she was going back. After all, she had InÃªs to thank â or was it to blame? â for everything.
Lost in thought, struggling with the stubborn latch on the black wrought-iron gate outside InÃªs's house, Sarah did not see the man until he was almost upon them. Gate opened, she turned towards the street to usher Honor and Ruby through. Their scooter wheels caught where they always did on the loose piece of York stone, and as she leant forward to propel them onwards, a movement in the shadow cast by the hydrangea that covered the grey brick walls caught her eye. She looked up, and there he was, next to her on the narrow path, saying, “Excuse me,” and strolling casually along as if he had every right to be there. He was wearing a grey suit and carrying a clipboard and he smiled at her as he passed, the kind of smile you give to someone you are not really looking at and are sure you will never see again.
It all happened so quickly and unexpectedly â Sarah had never met someone in InÃªs's front garden before â that by the time she thought about asking him who he was and what he was doing, he was gone. She glanced towards the house, at the navy blue front door with the peeling paint, and was sure that she just caught the sound of the lock clicking shut on the inside. He looks like an estate agent, she thought, but why on earth would he be visiting InÃªs?
She stood for a moment, gazing up and down the elegant Georgian terrace where rows of tall sash windows threw dark shadows onto the street below, and frowned. What the hell was InÃªs up to?
My beautiful girls! How lovely to see you.”
Having noisily climbed the stairs to the first floor, Sarah, Honor and Ruby found Great-Aunt InÃªs sitting as usual in her high-backed chair, whose purple velvet fabric was a riot of lush peonies and roses. Her eyes lit up as they entered and her gentle smile welcomed them in her graceful Portuguese way. She was tiny, delicate in every aspect, with impeccable manners and a fragility that matched that of her favourite bone china teacup. The elegant lines of her face were smudged and softened by her ninety-five years like a faded, half-erased pencil drawing, but even so, anyone would understand that she had been beautiful, once.
That afternoon her tortoiseshell table-lamp shone a soft, warm glow around her, catching every strand of her white hair in its halo of light. Sarah bent down and gently kissed the top of her head; Honor and Ruby flung themselves at her and then just as rapidly rushed away. Their destination, once they had raided the biscuit barrel, was the corner where the toys were kept, and where the bureau that held their favourite treasures also stood; the ancient music box, a set of antique Portuguese
and the ivory card case that had been brought back on a tea clipper from India by a distant Goanese relative two centuries before.
“So how are you, my dear?” InÃªs's voice was bright, but wavered slightly. She was weary, at this time in the afternoon.
“Not too bad.” Sarah threw her coat onto a chair, along with the girls' book bags, coats and cardigans.
“You seem tired.” Despite her own great age, InÃªs always worried about her niece. “You both work too hard, you and Hugo. I used to think that about John, too, but he was always home by 6pm. Times have changed,
“We're all right,” replied Sarah, slumping into a chair. “But yes, there is a lot on at the moment. Hugo's business is a constant challenge â well, you know how it is; the world and his wife thinks they can design a website these days. Clients demand the earth, and they want everything the day before yesterday. I think his colleagues Big Phil and Tommo see more of him than I do.”
She grimaced and then tried to turn it into a smile. InÃªs had few enough visitors; time spent with her should not be wasted in moaning. She wanted to share her news, hoping that talking about it might make the way forward clearer â but something even more pressing was niggling at her.
“Yes, my dear?”
“Who was that at the front door just now?” Sarah tried to sound casual and unconcerned, twiddling her ponytail and smiling in what she hoped was an encouraging way.
The pause before InÃªs replied was minute but noticeable. “What do you mean?”
“When we came up the path â there was a man leaving the house, we almost fell over him on the path. He gave me quite a fright.”
A flicker of something that Sarah could not quite decipher â was it discomfort? embarrassment? â crossed InÃªs's face, and she shifted awkwardly in her chair. “I don't know who he was, my dear. Trying to sell me something as usual, something I don't want. Gas, I think, or was it electricity?”
“Oh, really?” Honor had come close by, the lamplight catching the silver clips in her hair and sending diamonds shooting in all directions. Sarah absent-mindedly kissed her cheek, contemplating InÃªs's answer.
“Yes, of course, gas. I'm sure that's it. My memory these daysâ¦” InÃªs shook her head sadly, mourning her inability to remember something that had only just happened.
Sarah felt suddenly ashamed of herself for challenging InÃªs, for insinuating that she did not believe her. She strolled idly to the window and looked out, her eyes following the direction in which the man had disappeared, although she knew he was long gone. The rush hour traffic rumbled on Highgate Road, backed up now all the way from the lights that were a good fifty metres further down. She noticed from this high vantage point that the wide-lawned area that separated InÃªs's house from the main road was newly mown and that the spring plantings of tulips and primroses were nearly over. The trees were almost in full leaf; London planes, horse chestnuts and the one single ash that stood right outside InÃªs's front garden. Soon its long green fronds would shield her from the busy world outside once more.
Sarah realised, despite the awkwardness, that she couldn't let the matter of the strange visitor rest there. “InÃªs, he didn't look much like an energy salesman.”
InÃªs did not reply, just opened her hands in a gesture that reinforced her explanation, that implied that indeed it might seem strange, but there it was.
“Are you sure he wasn't some kind of con man? You know, one of these confidence tricksters who prey onâ¦on older people?” As soon as she'd said it, Sarah regretted it. InÃªs hated to be made to feel as if she couldn't cope. “The thing is, I'm not sure that you should be answering the door to anyone you don't know,” Sarah continued hastily, trying to assuage the guilt that was sweeping across her. “I never do, and I'm notâ¦” Sarah faltered and tried again. “I mean, even if they're trustworthy themselves, they might tell someone there's an elderly lady living all alone in this big house.”
As she spoke, Sarah saw that although InÃªs's face was serene as always, her hands were tightly gripping the edge of the crocheted blanket on her knees.
“It worries me.” Sarah's cheeks reddened as her voice tailed off lamely and for a moment, neither of them said anything, and all they could hear was InÃªs's old music box, wound up by Honor, playing a tinny and irregular âAu clair de la lune', again and again.
“It's fine, Sarah. I can still look after myself perfectly well.”
InÃªs's voice was sharp, harsh and unfamiliar. Sarah wondered what she had said to so inexplicably upset her; it was so unlike her. She looked carefully at InÃªs, noticing how small she suddenly seemed in her chair, the roses and peonies appearing to have doubled in size and to be smothering her with their untrammelled lush exuberance. Her tiny hands were locked together so tightly that the baggy skin on her knuckles was stretched thin and white.
“I don't know about me being tired â it's you who is exhausted,” murmured Sarah, softly. “I'm sorry, I think that the girls and I have worn you out. We'll be off very soon. Let you have a rest.”
InÃªs seemed to have to muster all her energy to reply. “I do feel rather weary today. Must be my age.” She smiled a small, weak smile, her soft, drooping cheeks trembling with the effort. Her eyes seemed many miles away, seeing something that Sarah couldn't, and she sighed deeply before continuing. “I'm feeling every one of my years these days.”
And then Sarah knew. Knew that one day, and maybe not that long into the future, InÃªs would die. The time was coming. The realisation hit her with a hammer blow that she could not ignore and caused a surge of icy cold panic to flood her veins.
“Goodness! I can't believe I've been here all this time and I haven't even made the tea,” she exclaimed. “What are we thinking of?” She needed the distraction of something as banal as tea-making to take her mind off the fact of InÃªs's mortality.
In the upstairs kitchen that had been installed a few years ago to make things easier for InÃªs, she put the kettle on and threw some tea leaves into the pot. She could see Billy the gardener still hard at work even though it was getting dark now. He was tying a clematis to its support, completely absorbed in his task, his shiny balding head the most visible part of him in the early evening gloom. Sarah could imagine, but not make out, how the laces of his gardening boots would be trailing in the damp brown earth as usual.
She picked up her phone and checked her messages as she waited for the kettle to boil. There was one from Hugo, telling her he would be late home again. No surprises there. She felt irritation bubble up within her like the boiling water in the kettle and fought to suppress it. Hugo had to work long hours. That was the way it was.
She carried the tray into the sitting room, put the lemon into the cups and poured the tea, watching as the slices rose to the surface and floated there, yellow flowers brightening a clear brown pond. The girls were getting restless so Sarah instructed them to go into the garden and help Billy clear up his tools; that always occupied them for a while.
The tea appeared to revive InÃªs a little. Sarah relaxed; she had panicked unnecessarily. InÃªs was as fine as ever.
“So â at last. Now perhaps you can tell me what you really came for.” InÃªs's cup rattled slightly as she replaced it into her saucer with unsteady hands.
Sarah laughed, the constrained atmosphere of earlier forgotten. “I can never keep anything hidden from you, can I? It was the same when I was a little girl â you always knew if I'd stolen a cookie or snatched a nibble from the
pasteis de nata
She knitted her fingers together, leant forward and took a deep breath. “The news is â that I'm going to Portugal.” Was it really the right thing to do? Was the pain not better left untouched, buried beneath the years? “What I mean is â I might be goingâ¦possibly.”
“How marvellous for you, my dear. Is it a holiday?” InÃªs's eyes, under their heavy lids, were suddenly bright and questioning. She could not know what turmoil the prospect was causing.
“No,” explained Sarah, her tone as measured as she could make it. “It's for work. I've been commissioned â offered a commission â to write an article all about cork.”
InÃªs looked down at her teacup, the lemon's citrus shine stained nicotine-brown now.
“What a wonderful surprise. How you will love to see the country again after so long. But a shame you and Hugo couldn't be having a nice break there together.”
“The state our finances are in? Not likely. And anyway, I'm not sureâ¦” Sarah glanced around her vacantly as she searched for the right words. “What I mean is, it's a work trip, not a vacation. I'll be very busy while I'm there â it wouldn't be any fun for Hugo, I'd have no time for him.” She drained her tea and picked up the pot to give them both a refill. “Plus all we seem to do these days is argue,” she added as an afterthought, fighting the frustration she felt over the dismal state of her marriage as the last of the liquid trickled into the cups.
“Anyway, if I go, I'll need to visit a
just like the one where you grew up,” she continued and then paused, suddenly unable to carry on.
“Why would you not go?” interjected InÃªs, gently.
Sarah looked down at her hands, folded around her knees. How to begin to explain? It was the only thing she'd never shared with InÃªs, never really spoken about to anyone. “Well â no reason, I suppose. I mean, I'm sure I will go,” Sarah flannelled, hastily. “It's just childcare, school runs â you know, all that boring stuff!”
InÃªs's quizzical expression indicated that she was not finding this explanation satisfactory.
“Anyway,” Sarah continued, steering the conversation away from any more awkward questions. “The thing is that I thought maybe you could help me with my research, tell me more of your memories? Get me started.”
“Oh, I don't remember much these days, my dear, as you know â not even who has just been at the door.” InÃªs gave a grim smile. “Time has taken its toll on my mind along with everything else.”
She looked down at herself, at the loose skin and brown spots on the backs of her hands, seeming to be seeking confirmation, however reluctantly, of her own ageing. “But I'll tell you what I can recall.”
She looked towards her tall sash windows as if beyond them lay the expansive plains of the
, filled with glades of ancient cork oaks, instead of the chilly acres of Hampstead Heath.
“Stripping the cork bark from the trees is hard work, Sarah â skilled work â in the sweltering heat of summer. We always threw a huge party for the men â the
â and their families, once every tree had been harvested. Music and dancing under the starsâ¦ They were wonderful times. There seemed to be so much more colour there, in Portugal, than there is here. Cowslips, purple heather, the blazing red of the strawberry tree fruits. Or maybe that's just how I remember it.”
“It sounds idyllic,” responded Sarah, wanting InÃªs to carry on painting the picture of her youth.
“We spent our summers at the beach, all the cousins together, sometimes at Zambujeira do Mar, but usually Melides. Oh, the sea was cold, but we swam and swam like dolphins. I always loved to swim.”
InÃªs paused, her thoughts lost in those faraway times and Sarah joined her there, in the wild, sparkling sea under the intense glare of the southern sun.
“It was all so different when I married and moved to Porto. Grapes dictated the pace of life there, not cork; nearly everyone seemed to have something to do with producing the port wine. There were good times, too, though. One Easter, John and I joined a family party on their estate in the high Douro. The family booked an entire railway carriage to get there, and they even took their piano! You could do things like that, then.”
An image of a baby grand balanced on the seats of an Intercity train to Manchester popped into Sarah's mind, and she smiled to herself. These were the stories that she had grown up with and when she'd finally got there herself, she'd discovered the truth was twice as good. Portugal's sounds and tastes had assailed her senses and overwhelmed her: the roar of the scooter engines that raced up and down Lisbon's ancient streets; the pungent, exotic aroma of fresh coriander; the thick, sensual sweetness of a sun-ripened peaches. And then love â the kind of love that tears the heart apart with its intensity, that makes the world turn faster, brighter.
The sudden, harsh clatter of InÃªs's teaspoon sliding from her saucer and onto the wooden floor was exacerbated by the deep silence that had preceded its descent. The discordant sound echoed Sarah's emotions, the bittersweet nature of her Portuguese memories.
She picked up the spoon and put it on the tray. “Is there anything else you'd like, before we go?” she asked.
But InÃªs wasn't listening, lingering as she was in decades past.
“Of course, I was still very young when I moved away,' she murmured, her voice and demeanour almost trance-like. “I had fallen in love with John, married him and moved to the north, all by the time I was twenty.” She pulled her shawl tighter around her as if suddenly cold although the temperature had not changed. “It's strange to think now how little I knew him when I bound my life to his. The innocence of youth, I suppose.”
InÃªs's gaze wandered from the tall windows back to Sarah and she started slightly, as if surprised to find her still there. It seemed to remind her of something.
“I have something that might help you, my dear,” she said.
Sarah looked at her questioningly but said nothing, waiting patiently for InÃªs to carry on. Her speech was very slow these days.
“My journal. It's in my bedroom, next to my bed. Please take it, I'd like you to have it. I started it when I got engaged and kept it for a few years, writing in it regularly, untilâ¦” InÃªs stopped suddenly, as if unable to continue.
“Until what?” probed Sarah, gently.
“There are things in it you might find interesting,” InÃªs continued, ignoring Sarah's question. “That mightâ¦” She trailed off again. Her eyes, seeking the light, returned to the tall windows and then her heavy lids closed over them as if it were too bright, too intense.
“That might what?” asked Sarah, more urgently now.
But InÃªs was silent, dozing in her chair, her hands fallen to her sides.
The journal and what she would find in it absorbed Sarah's thoughts as she put the children to bed and prepared supper that evening. She had found the volume exactly where InÃªs had said it would be; it was bound in thick leather that smelt richly of quality and heritage and Sarah had tucked it firmly into her handbag before gathering up the girls to leave. It would be useful if she were able to glean any information for her article from it, but the real reason she was so intrigued to read it was the feeling she had that InÃªs had something on her mind that Sarah needed to uncover â and soon, before her great age might cause her health to deteriorate.
She hardly knew anything, she realised as she reflected, about InÃªs's emotional life, which she had never really shared with Sarah. InÃªs had gifted to her great-niece the flavours of Portugal through her stews of pork and beans, her custard tarts and the fresh herbs she had grown herself. But she had disclosed little about matters of the heart, about her husband, John, who had died whilst Sarah was still a child. With the absence of information about InÃªs and John's young life together, Sarah had only the photos in the family albums of a tall, strikingly handsome, athletic-looking man to go on, combined with the snippets of family legend she had heard over the years. So she had created her own impression, one in which InÃªs's past belonged to a different age of chivalry and courtliness, in which she had met and married her knight in shining armour. Eventually, after unspoken acts of heroism and derring-do in the Second World War, John had brought his beautiful bride to England which had allowed her to be part of Sarah's life.
What must it have been like, Sarah mused as she chopped vegetables and peeled potatoes, to have come from the brightness and light of Portugal to cold and lonely war-damaged London, demeaned by rationing and belittled by years of conflict? So, so different from what InÃªs was used to it was a wonder she had survived the shock. It had been hard enough for Sarah to return to England after only half a year. What were the words InÃªs had used that afternoon?
âThe innocence of youth.'
Sarah had been innocent, too, when she first went to InÃªs's homeland. Innocent â naÃ¯ve, even â and inexperienced, but hungry for love, just like her great-aunt when she had met John. But her story hadn't ended as InÃªs's had; things had not worked out for her the way they had for InÃªs.
Pouring herself a glass of wine and shoving the casserole in the oven, Sarah pulled the journal out of her bag and sat down to read.
I am InÃªs BretÃ£o and I am 18 years old (nearly 19). I live on a cork farm in the Alentejo region of Portugal with my mother and father and my younger brother and sister. I have one dog and three cats, and a pony called Pimento. Now that I am finally an adult and soon to be married, I feel like my real life is about to begin. I have decided to document everything that happens to me, for my children and my grandchildren.
But InÃªs hadn't had any children, thought Sarah, pausing as she read. She had smiled at InÃªs's mention of her pets, something that showed that, even though she regarded herself as a sophisticated adult, she was really not so very far away from childhood. But now she frowned, wondering as she often had why
her great-aunt was childless. It was a subject that had always been untouched and somehow untouchable, as if some hidden force field barred it from being raised. Perhaps the journal would also shed some light on this mystery.
The Alentejo, 1934
I chose my wedding dress today! It is so hot now that there is nothing to do but sit out the long afternoons inside with the shutters closed and the stone floors cooling my bare feet. If I can't be outside then I thought that I might as well put my time to good use by going through the sheaf of magazine cuttings the dressmaker lent me. Looking at all those immaculately coiffured brides in flowing white dresses gave me a headache; I had to keep thinking about John and how proud he would be to see me walking up the aisle towards him in order to concentrate on it. He is so tall and handsome, I need to look my very best so that I make all his hopes and dreams come true. Though I really shouldn't think like that because I know that John truly loves me and finds me beautiful â he says so often enough, which always, annoyingly, makes me blush.
It will be so thrilling to be married; apart from anything else, I'll be free to do whatever I like. I love my family and the cork farm beyond belief but there are so many limitations on what I am allowed to do. Once I become Mrs John Morton next spring, no one will be overseeing my every move; I shall go where I please and do as I wish. Some people have questioned the fact that John is ten years older than me and cautioned that we should wait a while before marrying but I really don't see why it matters. He says he has been waiting for the perfect woman to come along and now that I have, he wants to get on with it and I agree. At the moment, John lives in Lisbon but he's changing his job and we'll be going to Porto straight after the wedding. Porto! I've never even been there, in fact I haven't been anywhere further north than Coimbra. He'll be working for one of the British port wine companies, a very important job organising the shipping of the port all over the world. I'll have to learn English so that I can accompany him to social events and dinners; I only learnt French at school but I'm sure English won't be too much harder.
I've been imagining where we will live â it'll be completely different to here on the
. This house is in the middle of nowhere but we'll live in the city centre in Porto, in an apartment. I think it will have high ceilings, and tall windows that look out onto a square with a splashing fountain, and the sunlight will catch the water in a myriad jewelled droplets. It will be so romantic.
But back to the dress! I finally found one that I liked. It has a nipped in waist, a beaded bodice and a long train. I will have it made in ivory satin as I think ivory is more sophisticated than pure white and sophistication is what I aspire to. I'm not sure that I'll ever quite make it â can you be sophisticated when what you really love to do is go to the farmyard and scratch the sow behind her ears so that she grunts with pleasure? Or, in the springtime, spend hours amongst the cork oaks watching the kites hunting and spotting the baby black storks in their nests? I'm not too sureâ¦but perhaps one day I'll just wake up and find it has happened to me, as if by magic. Let's hope so.
My sister Maria is to be my bridesmaid. She's only eight and very sweet. She has soft brown hair with a fringe that almost covers her eyes because she hates to get it cut and she smells of sun and green olive soap
and home. We're going to miss each other terribly. That is the bad part of growing up and getting married â I will gain so much but leave so much behind.
Once, Maria got lost. She was already in bed â or supposed to be â as she is so much younger than Jorge, my brother who's 16, and I. When my mother went to kiss her goodnight, she found her bed empty. There was an awful commotion â we all searched the house from top to bottom, but she was nowhere to be found. We went to the farmyard and left no stone unturned but she wasn't there either. Finally, once we were all well and truly frantic with worry, Fausto the dog found her curled up and peacefully asleep amongst the roots of a cork tree.
We were so relieved that she was safe that at first that's all anyone could think of or talk about. But then it turned out that it was my fault, as I had told Maria that the cork trees get their shape because they jig about all night when no one is watching and then freeze to the spot, mid-dance, at daybreak. So she had gone out to see if it was true and unfortunately, because it was a dark night with hardly any starlight, she got completely lost and eventually became so tired with wandering blindly around the forest that she lay down to sleep, blissfully unaware of how much panic her disappearance had caused. Though pretty cross with me, for making up stories!
I'll miss all of this, when I've gone to Porto. But I must stop thinking like this. All of my friends are so jealous. They'd give their eye teeth to be marrying a man like John â so good-looking, so successful â and so exotically English.
To make it up to Maria that I'm leaving, at lunchtime I let her be the one to show the rest of the family the picture of the dress. I think they approved, although my mother reprimanded me for running everywhere, calling me an unbroken pony, if you can believe it! Really, she does exaggerate sometimes. I could hardly stop myself from laughing, especially as I could see Maria biting her lip and trying to keep a straight face whilst I got a scolding.
Soon, I'll be in charge of the dining room and the meals, choosing what to serve, planning menus. That's a scary thought, if I'm honest, because I'm not very domestic. But I'll learn. People say you can learn anything if you put your mind to it. My family are so happy for me to be making such a good match that I have a lot of expectation to live up to.
I can't and I won't let them down.
Sarah was still lost in InÃªs's past when she heard the key in the lock that signalled that Hugo was back from work. Instinctively, she looked at her watch and saw that it was much later than his text had said he would be back. She had not noticed the passing of time, so engrossed was she in what she was reading. Hastily, she closed the journal and opened her laptop, on which the email asking her to do the Portuguese story was still open. She had almost forgotten about it, and the decision she had to make, with the distraction of seeing InÃªs, the encounter with her curious visitor, and the gift of the journal. Now some of InÃªs's courage â preparing to leave all that was familiar to her in favour of the man she loved, to move far away from everything she knew â imbued itself in Sarah. She would not let painful memories that she should have left behind years ago define or restrict her.
She would take the commission. She would go to Portugal.
She heard the plump of Hugo's bag on the hall floor and the click of the catch on the door of the downstairs cloakroom. By the time he had entered the kitchen, she was refilling her own glass and pouring one for him.
“Hi,” she said, handing him the wine. “How was your day?”
As soon as she'd said it, she knew it was a mistake.
“Awful. Needy clients, uncooperative software, ridiculous deadlines.”
Hugo sat down heavily on one of the kitchen chairs. “What's for supper?”
“Oh!” cried Sarah, suddenly remembering the casserole in the oven. Snatching up the oven gloves, she tore open the oven door and hauled out the heavy dish. The damage was confirmed as soon as she lifted the lid.
“I'm sorry, it's a bit â well, dry.” She peered into the pan, the heat from the desiccated food scorching her skin. “I'll make some more gravy, then it'll be fine.”
Hugo got out his phone and started scrolling through it as Sarah struggled to redeem the food. Stirring the gravy pan vigorously, she could feel her annoyance preventing the lumps from melting. He hadn't asked her anything about herself. There had been a time when he had been as interested in her work as in his own, but that time seemed to have been swept away by a tidal wave that had left only indifference in its wake.
“I've got the chance of a really good piece,” she announced, keeping her voice steady and calm. “An article about cork production.” She placed the casserole dish on the wooden mat she had put ready.
“That's great, darling, well done.” Hugo had put his phone on the table but he was still looking at it, either reading a message or expecting one.
Sarah plonked her wine glass hard down, slopping a few blood-red drops onto the table. “Isn't it good? I think it'll be really interesting.”
She paused, rubbing at the spilt wine with her fingertip. “The only thing is â as I said, it's about cork. Portuguese cork.” She realised that she was speaking unnaturally fast, as if getting the words out quickly would confuse Hugo into agreeing. “So â I'll have to go there for a few days. To Portugal. I'll have to go to Portugal.”