The Primrose Path

Shutterstock / Kaori A ©

Having made her way in the world, has Evelyn made the right decision to return to her humble roots?

Evelyn Pengelly turned towards the woman hanging out washing to one side of the line of tiny cottages along the cliffs, sheets and petticoats flapping in gusts rushing in from the sea.

“Yes, thank you. I didn’t realise number three was empty.”

“Mrs Carter left last week, went to live with her sister in St Ives. Never was the same after her husband was killed in Flanders, poor woman. It’s hard for a widow with five little ones to support.”

“Very,” said Evelyn.

She found the neighbour eyeing her with guarded curiosity, taking in the expensive cut of her tweed walking skirt and her barely worn boots.

No doubt she was already weaving a story about the middle-aged woman, no ring, and even more to the point no hat, wandering the Cornish countryside on her own.

She was no longer part of Godrevy Row, she recognised sadly.

The small girl who had lived here so long ago, amongst the other families scraping a living in the little harbour, who had played in and out of the gardens and rushed back from school with such big dreams, was long gone.

“She’s working at a guesthouse next to Porthmeor Beach.” The women bent to lift the next sheet. “Sea View? Or maybe it were Belleview. Something like that. Won’t be hard to find.”

“Thank you,” replied Evelyn with a smile.

She took a last look at the cottage, which seemed so much smaller, and far shabbier, than she remembered.

The garden was dishevelled, but either side of the path primroses bloomed in masses of creamy yellow, flanked by the tall stems of daffodils, preparing to open.

Mum had planted those primroses when Dad had remade the path, dividing them each year until they formed a bright carpet each spring, luminous even in the dark, guiding them home.

That would have pleased Mum, thought Evelyn.

She left the neighbour to her washing and took the path down towards the little harbour.

Mum had loved the natural world, teaching her children and grandchildren the name of each flower in the fields and each bird in the hedgerow, along with the habits of small creatures hiding amongst the brambles. She would have laughed with delight to know her beloved primroses, the first promise of spring, had survived.

On the outskirts of the harbour Evelyn paused, breathing in deep the sea air, with its chill edge and the taste of salt on her lips.

It was so wonderfully clean after the hazy atmosphere of London, for all she enjoyed the vibrancy of its restless streets, with the fumes of motorised vehicles now being added to the patient clop-clop of horses.

The doubts that had stirred as the train rushed through the countryside, taking her away from the life she had built over the past twenty years or so, finally faded away into certainty.

Walking briskly, she took the roadway towards the large Victorian villa tucked in the shelter of the cove.

She paused, hand on the wrought iron gate, watching the fair-haired young woman sitting on a bench, sketchbook in hand. She was scowling in concentration at a small group of snowdrops under the wind-bent form of an apple tree.

The click of the catch betrayed her. The girl looked up, sketchbook instantly forgotten.

“Aunt Evie!” She ran towards her, face flushed with pleasure. “Mama said to look out for you. Your luggage arrived from St Ives’ station a few minutes ago.”

“Excellent timing, then,” said Evelyn, returning her niece’s embrace. “Let’s have a look at you. You’ve grown, you are quite the young woman now.”

“I’m nineteen next week. Did you know that’s how old Mama was when she had me?” Lily sighed. “She is still quite determined that I should marry Howard Stanley and settle in St Ives. She’s already talking about a summer wedding.”

“A summer wedding sounds romantic,’ said Evelyn carefully.

It was years since she had stayed under her sister’s roof, and she’d no desire to prompt one of their stand-up, no-holds-barred rows before she’d even begun.

Phyllis had made it no secret that she considered her eccentric, unmarried sister a bad influence on her daughter.

“If you are madly in love,” returned Lily. “I don’t dislike Howard, Aunt Evie, but he’s so very dull.

“Mama says at least he’s kind and you can’t have everything in life, and it would secure my future. But I’m not sure I can even love him.

“I don’t want to love him. I don’t want to love anybody. Not yet. I’ve only ever lived under this roof and there are so many things I want to do. Oh, I’m sorry, Aunt Evie. You’ve only just arrived and all I’m doing is talking about myself.”

“That’s what the young are for,” replied Evelyn drily.

Lily laughed, the tension easing from her face.

“I’m so glad you are here. I wish you could stay forever.”

“Just as you are about to run away?”

“I wouldn’t run away if you were here, I can talk to you about anything.”

“Then that sounds like an argument for me not to stay.”

“Nonsense,” said Lily, slipping her arm affectionately through hers as they made their way towards the house. “Mama always says I take after you and no one will ever stop me from following my dreams.”

“She’s still determined to attend university, you know,” remarked Phyllis, watching her daughter, who had returned to her sketching as the sisters took tea in the sunroom overlooking the lawn. “She says she will teach to support herself.

“I don’t like to disappoint her, but young women these days have such ideas. I mean, who will ever employ a woman as a scientist?”

“The world is changing, Phyllis. If she is so determined, perhaps she will forge a path for others to follow.”

“That is such an outside chance. I so hate the thought of her being disappointed or unhappy, and I’m sure her brother will look after her once I am gone, but I couldn’t bear for her to be dependent on charity for the rest of her life.

“There were so few young men who came home from the war, it’s even more difficult to find a husband than it was before.”

There was a moment’s silence.

“I mean,” she added, colouring, “that not everyone is like you, content to live alone.”

“Content?” Evelyn sipped her tea in lieu of breathing deeply and counting to ten.

Now was probably not the time to tell her sister of the handsome Italian chef who had swept her off her feet, or those passionate nights with the son of a duke. Phyllis would be scandalised beyond words and never allow Evelyn near Lily again.

“I mean, able to become so successful,” muttered Phyllis, hastily. “Wherever I go I see one of your vases, or at least your tableware. People display them, you know, as if they are works of art. Those primroses in the art deco style are still really sought-after.”

“Are they?” Evelyn smiled. The plates and dishes decorated with stylised primroses had been her first commercial success.

She had moved on to the more vibrant reds and blues and abstract designs for which she was famous, but she would always have a soft spot for the primroses that had enabled her to build her ceramics business and to amass a small fortune.

“If I can succeed in design, why shouldn’t Lily succeed in the sciences?

“Especially now there is a greater acceptance of women in the professions,” she said.

“But she is such an affectionate girl.”

“Then I’m sure she will find love, one day, when she is ready. Maybe even with a fellow scientist. There are men out there who welcome the fact that women have brains.”

“I suppose so.” Phyllis leaned forward to cut slices of seed cake with the air of a woman who was desperate to change the subject. “I take it you are meeting Mr Williams tomorrow.”

“Nine o’clock prompt.” Evelyn swallowed a grin.

Phyllis would never give up attempting to matchmake, even with the family solicitor.

Jon Williams was a good man and a valued friend, but he was of the old school, the kind that assumed any woman he graced with marriage would be content to spend her life running his household and soothing his brow on his return from the office each evening.

Their professional relationship had long ago been born of a mutual recognition that any more intimate relationship would be an unmitigated disaster.

When she was younger, she had hesitated, feeling herself to be unnatural at her reluctance to give up her passion for ceramic design and the business she worked day and night to build.

She could never tell her sister that she might have been a duchess by now, wafting through London society in the finest furs and satin, curtsying to Queen Mary, while glittering with enough diamonds to buy a small island.

It had been the visit to Devereaux’s ancestral home, during their all-too-brief engagement, when she had been faced with fact that she was expected to give up everything of her existing life, while his would not change at all.

This was despite the fact that the only reason she was allowed through the door in the first place had been down to her growing reputation as the finest ceramic artist London could offer.

She could still feel the way her chest had constricted, standing there in the chilly splendour, recognising that not all the diamonds in the world would fill the emptiness that forcing herself into the mould of a society lady would bring.

She could have defied the disapproval of every family portrait lining the grand staircase, had she not known, deep inside, that this was not her world.

Not even love could make it less of a prison, stifling the breath from her body.

How could she even begin to explain to Devereaux, who had defied his family’s tacit disapproval to bring her there as his future duchess, that she knew deep in her bones it was an emptiness in which even love would die?

It should have been a triumph, the girl from Godrevy Row making her entrance into the aristocracy, to live a life of wealth and ease. Instead, with every step of that gilded staircase, her heart had quietly broken, piece by piece.

“And you are still set on purchasing Primrose Cottage, I take it,” remarked Phyllis, replenishing their tea.

“If Mr Williams can agree on good terms for the workshop.”

“Of course he will. He’s very clever. And besides, the harbour will jump at the chance of such a famous company setting up a branch here.”

“I hope so.”

“I just don’t see why you want to return, when you were so desperate to escape.

“Surely you could set up anywhere. There was talk in the papers of you expanding to the French Riviera, when you were there last summer.”

“I did consider it.” Evelyn frowned at the bitterness in her sister’s voice. “We both escaped Godrevy Row, Phyllis. No one expected that, especially not in those days. We were both destined to pack fish for the rest of our lives.”

“But you made something wonderful of your life. My children will soon be grown, and my daughters gone. Then all I’ll be is a widow, here on sufferance once George is old enough to take over, and no doubt patronised and looked down upon by his wife.”

“No one will look down on you, Phyllis. George is a sensible boy who loves you and I’m sure his future wife will be the same. Besides, you have your charity work and the school board.”

“But that’s so mundane. I’ll always be compared to your fame.”

“And I’m always compared to you. I might have my successes, but I’ll always be the one who couldn’t secure a husband and family.”

Phyllis gave a wry smile.

“It seems neither of us are perfect.”

“I should hope not. Life would be most tedious with nothing to improve and no more to learn.” Evelyn crumbled the remains of her seed cake onto her plate. “But it has struck me lately that I no longer feel satisfied spending my entire existence expanding my business and working on my designs, not even in the fashionable setting of the Riviera.

“I’ve appointed a bright young manager I’ve been training up over the past year to take over. She has the energy to grow the London business and leave me free to pursue my own projects.

“The truth is, I’ve trained up so many young women who, due to the war, will never marry, and will always need to earn their own living, it’s given me a hankering to assist girls who show aptitude here.” She cleared her throat. “And also to be closer to the only family I have in the world.”

“Oh,” said Phyllis, in unaccustomed strangled tones, blowing her nose loudly as Lily arrived to join them.

Spring had fully arrived at Godrevy Row, as Evelyn took her customary stroll across the cliffs above the harbour.

“Evening, Miss Pengelly,” said the washerwoman, retrieving sun-warmed sheets from her line.

“Good evening Mrs Ellery, such a beautiful day it’s been.”

“Not bad,” Mrs Ellery admitted. “A good wind for drying.”

“I’ll see you at the rehearsal later.”

Mrs Ellery breathed in the scent of her sheets.

“Couldn’t stop me. Not with it being the last before Easter, not with me doing that solo. I need to make sure I know when to come in.”

“You always do it beautifully,” said Evelyn warmly. “I wish I had a voice like yours, I can barely hold a note. Although joining the choral society was the best thing I’ve ever done.”

“Indeed, miss,” said the washerwoman, a little dubiously, but with a look of pride suffusing her face.

Halfway down the path to the harbour, Evelyn discovered Phyllis walking up to meet her.

“Somehow I couldn’t stay still this evening,” she said. “Lily posted her application this afternoon.”

“I’m sure she will be successful.”

“And I expect I’ll get used to the idea,” said Phyllis, with an effort at cheerfulness.

They paused to look down over the harbour, warmed in an orange glow.

“When do you take possession of Primrose Cottage?”

“Next Monday.”

“I’ll miss you.”

“Darling Phyllis, I’ll only be a few minutes’ walk away. And I promise that the first thing I’ll do is to invite you to take tea with me.”

Phyllis blushed with pleasure.

“Do you mean that?”

“Of course. After all, we’ve managed all these weeks under the same roof without tearing each other to pieces.”

“So we have,” said Phyllis, equally ignoring the fact that it had been a close-run thing at times, and perhaps just as well Evelyn was about to set up her own establishment. Two Pengelly women under one roof had never been a comfortable prospect.

“So you’ll come?”

“Of course. It’s such a pretty cottage. Although a pity there are no primroses to live up to its name.”

“I’ve had a word with the family who’ve taken over from the Carters in Godrevy Row. They are more than happy to let me have some of our old primroses. That will be my first job, to plant them either side of the path.

“They’ll look a bit threadbare at first, but in a year or two I shall be walking along my very own primrose path.”

Evelyn slipped her arm through that of her sister.

“And I have to confess, my dear, that I can’t think of anything that would make me happier.”

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