Dart Valley Writers U3A
She was on the third train of the journey. Stony-faced, narrow-bodied commuters carrying laptops and smartphones had given way to the more comfortable shapes of, mostly, women cuddling shopping bags on their laps, women who met her gaze, one or two who smiled. It was a more complicated journey than travelling from Africa, but with each stage Rita felt another layer of the stress of the last few weeks fall away.
The first train had been sleek and fast, the second rackety and dirty, full of equally rackety schoolchildren. This one was immaculate in spite of the steam and the smuts flying past the window. Years ago the line had been restored by a group of enthusiasts who had established a tourist attraction, the Buttercup Line, now used by local people avoiding the high cost of petrol and parking in Gainsborough. Today the spectacular views were blotted out by misty rain. Rita hoped she would know when she reached her stop.
She took out the paper with the address on it. The Lookout, Mare's Point seemed inadequate, but it was all she had. The other three, her so-called siblings, had all been here as children, ( 'it was like camping - great!' said Charlie. 'It was ghastly, just like camping,' said Annabel and Sebastian ) but that was long before she'd arrived in the family. The memory of that hostile reception she'd had as a fifteen year old still had the power to make the adult Rita shudder. The welcome of three weeks ago, when she'd been summoned following their mother's severe stroke, had been more adult, but no friendlier.
'We'll contest it,' Annabel had said, 'if she leaves anything much to you.' Annabel had always resented her, the six-months older adopted sister, plucked from the civil war in Sierra Leone, disrupting her teenage years. Rita supposed it was understandable - she'd supplanted her as the eldest, the only daughter. She and Annabel hadn't seen each other for a couple of years but the old jealousy was obviously still as raw as ever, and it still hurt.
Charlie had stood up to Annabel. He'd always had a soft spot for Rita. 'She's got every right. She's the same as us, legally.'
Sebastian sniffed. 'Legally. Oh yes, legally . Huh!'
Rita had shrugged and left the room. None of them seemed to care that their mother was dying upstairs. She held Sybil's hand but there was no flicker of awareness, no answering pressure. When she arrived, Sybil had been as delighted to see her as the others had been horrified. Her eyes had lit up. She had tried to embrace her. Rita had conveyed the greetings from Sierra Leone, the good news from friends, careful not to mention the crisis overwhelming the country. She was only just in time. The next day Sybil had slipped into unconsciousness.
Sierra Leone was what she and Sybil had in common, that and the colour of their skin. They were both half-and-halfs: Sybil, the daughter of a white English doctor and a black nurse who died of malaria; and Rita, a generation later, the child of a black surgeon and an Anglo-Indian nurse who were both killed in a roadside ambush. Nobody knew that Sybil had maintained links with the hospital where her father had worked. Even her husband didn't know that she corresponded regularly with one of the theatre sisters and sent money to support an orphanage. So it was a shock to her family when Sybil, in a crisis of identity and guilt about the homeland she had never known, insisted on adopting the child who'd survived the ambush.
'I was given a life, so it's payback time. I owe it to her,' was all she would say to her bemused family.
As she peered into the mist of the winter countryside, Rita hoped Sybil had been at peace when she died, believing that her adopted daughter had "come to terms" with her African identity. In truth, Rita was relieved to give all that up. She just wasn't interested. She even preferred the muted palette of the English landscape and the people who blended with it. The train juddered to a halt and, as if on cue, a neat woman in a mud-brown mac carrying a battered grey holdall settled on the opposite seat. Rita was aware of being watched, although every time she looked round the woman had carefully returned to reading a magazine. That British reserve was something she had grown used to. It went with the weather and she was comfortable with both.
It was Sybil who had encouraged Rita to go to Sierra Leone after she graduated - ' before life overtakes you' - so that she would understand her roots. But Rita hadn't understood. People in Freetown who had known her parents were welcoming, but she had no sense of belonging. Then the dreadful Ebola had hit and she'd been deep-down scared that she might never get out alive. News that Sybil was dying had been almost welcome - an excuse to leave. She felt guilty about that and guilty to be able to escape. On the flight home, she had even wondered whether there'd be money to send to the hospital to salve her conscience.
But the money had gone to her siblings. No point in even asking. They'd obviously thought that her departure for Sierra Leone meant that she'd vanish for good into the unknown depths of Africa. She would never have been welcome, let alone, as they saw it, bringing the risk of a deadly disease. They'd made a huge fuss about whether she'd been properly screened at Heathrow and insisted she use separate cups and utensils and Sybil's bathroom 'just in case.' Charlie had shrugged and smiled, but she'd noticed he didn't object.
A screech of brakes brought Rita back to the present. The rain had cleared. They were snaking down into a valley with sheep nibbling at not-much grass on moorland with rocky outcrops. In the distance was a grey expanse which she realised, with a gasp, was the sea. The woman opposite looked up from poking her magazine into her bag and smiled.
'You getting out at Maresland?'
Rita nodded. 'If that's the stop for Mare's Point?'
The woman laughed. 'Certainly is. It's the last stop anyway. But there are folk as come for the ride, see the views. They stay on and go right back again. But I did think...'
She tailed off, looking embarrassed.
'Well, you're so like her. I did think as you must be the new owner up at the Lookout. She was your mother, was she, Mrs Samson?'
'You knew her? She still came here?'
'Of course. Every April, every October. And weekends in between, when she could. We heard. I'm so sorry for your loss. She was a lovely lady, people here loved her.'
'Yes. Yes, she was.'
'Rita, isn't it? She often talked about you.'
'Did she?' Rita shook her head. 'I had no idea. No idea she came here any more.'
'I had the key, you see. Kept an eye. Made sure the damp didn't get to the paintings.'
'Well yes. Such a collector, she was. Had a room made, specially insulated and so on. My Jack did it for her. Used to paint herself, but she said they was rubbish, but she enjoyed trying. Here, get your stuff. Out we get.'
Rita hauled her rucksack off the rack and followed the woman down the platform.
'You come over to my place, dear, and I'll get Jack to run you up in the Land Rover. It's a few fields away, rough going with that heavy bag.'
When Rita stepped into the living room she knew that she'd come off best in Sybil's will. She had been given the gift of a sea view, second to none, the gift of solitude, the gift of beauty and wildness. She knew she could gaze out of that window all day.
But Jack was waiting in the Land Rover and Doreen, his wife and now her friend, was eager to show her round and get back home. Doreen jangled keys and unlocked a door to the left of the kitchen. She flicked a switch and stood back.
'The paintings,' she said.
They glowed from every side - trees, faces, seascapes and abstracts, each category hung on separate walls. Rita knew little about art, but a sense of awe overcame her as she stepped slowly into their presence. Sybil had left her another gift of beauty, a secret cache. If only the others could see her now. Just imagine their faces. Annabel had definitely smirked when the lawyer read the will and revealed that Rita was to inherit what Sebastian described as 'that hovel of a shed on a cliff-top.' Rita giggled at the thought of Sybil keeping this secret.
'Just local artists, as far as I know. She always bought from folk she knew. Things that grabbed her. Don't know if they're worth anything,' said Doreen from the doorway. 'But the paperwork's all in here.' She swung back a small watercolour to reveal a safe in the wall.
'Now I understand the combination. It's A M R I T A. That's your full name, isn't it? She told me once - it means Immortality, she said.'
Rita sighed and nodded. Another aspect of her identity she'd rather leave on one side. 'Yes, after my Indian grandmother.'