Authors: Lucinda Riley
For my sister, Georgia
Christmas Eve, 1985
Marchmont Hall, Monmouthshire, Wales
David Marchmont glanced towards his passenger as he steered the car along the narrow lane. The snow was falling in earnest now, making the already dangerously icy road even
‘Not far now Greta, and it looks as if we’ve made it just in time. I reckon this lane will be impassable by morning. Does anything seem familiar?’ he asked tentatively.
Greta turned towards him. Her ivory skin was still unlined, even though she was fifty-eight years old, and her huge blue eyes dominated what David had always thought of as her doll-like face.
Age hadn’t dimmed the vividness of their colour, but they no longer shone with excitement or anger. The light behind them had disappeared long ago, and they remained as blank and innocent as
the inanimate china facsimile she reminded him of.
‘I know I once lived here. But I can’t remember it, David. I’m sorry.’
‘Not to worry,’ he comforted her, knowing how much it distressed her. And also thinking that if he could edit out of
memory that first grisly, devastating sight of his
childhood home after the fire – the pungent smell of charred wood and smoke remained with him to this day – he almost certainly would. ‘Of course, Marchmont is well on its way to
being restored now.’
‘Yes, David, I know. You told me that last week when you came over to me for supper. I cooked lamb cutlets and we had a bottle of Sancerre,’ she said defensively. ‘You said we
were staying in the house itself.’
‘Exactly right,’ David agreed equably, understanding that Greta always felt the need to give him exact details of recent events, even if the past before her accident was inaccessible
to her. As he navigated the ice-rutted lane, the tyres struggling to maintain a grip on the slight incline, he now wondered if bringing Greta back here for Christmas was a good idea. Frankly,
he’d been amazed when she’d finally accepted his invitation, after years of trying to persuade her to leave her Mayfair apartment and receiving a firm ‘no’.
At last, after three years of painstaking renovation to restore the house to some semblance of its former glory, he’d felt it was the right moment. And for some reason, out of the blue, so
had she. At least he knew the house would be physically warm and comfortable. Although emotionally – for either of them, given the circumstances – he didn’t know . . .
‘It’s getting dark already,’ Greta commented blandly. ‘And it’s only just past three o’clock.’
‘Yes, but I hope the light will hold long enough so we can at least see Marchmont.’
‘Where I used to live.’
‘With Owen. My husband. Who was your uncle.’
David knew that Greta had simply memorised the details of the past she’d forgotten. As if she were taking an exam. And it was he who had been Greta’s teacher, told by the doctors who
cared for her to steer clear of any traumatic events but to mention names, dates and places that might stir something in her subconscious and provide the key to recovering her lost memory.
Occasionally, when he went to visit her and they chatted, he thought he saw a flicker of recognition at something he mentioned, but he couldn’t be sure whether that was through what he had
told her since or what she actually remembered. And after all these years, the doctors – who’d once been certain that Greta’s memory would slowly return, as there was nothing to
indicate it wouldn’t on the numerous brain scans she’d had since the accident – now talked of ‘selective amnesia’ brought on by trauma. In their opinion, Greta did not
David steered the car slowly around the treacherous bend in the lane, knowing that within a few seconds the gates that led to Marchmont would come into view. Even though he was the legal owner
and had spent a fortune on the renovation of the house, he was only the caretaker. Now the restoration was almost complete, Ava, Greta’s granddaughter, and her husband, Simon, had moved from
the Gate Lodge to take up residence at Marchmont Hall. And when David died, it would legally pass to Ava. The timing couldn’t be better, given the couple were expecting their first baby in a
few weeks’ time. And just maybe, David thought, the past few years of a family history which had gone so badly wrong could be finally laid to rest with the breath of new, innocent life.
What complicated the situation further were the events that had happened
Greta’s memory loss . . . events he’d protected her from, concerned about the effect they
might have on her. After all, if she couldn’t remember the start of it all, how could she possibly deal with the end?
All in all, the situation meant that he, Ava and Simon walked a tightrope during conversations with Greta, wanting to prompt her memory but constantly wary of what was discussed in front of
‘Can you see it, Greta?’ David asked as he drove the car between the gates and Marchmont came into view.
Of Elizabethan origin, the house sat low and gracefully against the skyline of undulating foothills that graduated into the majestic peaks of the Black Mountains beyond. Below it, the River Usk
meandered through the wide valley, the fields on either side sparkling with the recent snowfall. The mellow red brick of the ancient walls rose into triple gables along its frontage, while the
intricate panes of glass in the mullioned windows reflected the winter sun’s last, rosy rays.
Even though the old timbers – bone dry as they were – had given the hungry flames of the fire a healthy supper that had resulted in the roof being destroyed, the outer shell had
survived. As the fire services had told him, it was partly due to the luck of a huge downpour an hour or so after the first small ember had caught light. Only nature had saved Marchmont Hall from
total destruction and there had at least been something left for him to restore.
‘Oh, David, it’s far more beautiful than it looked in the photographs you showed me,’ Greta breathed. ‘What with all the snow, it looks like a Christmas card.’
And indeed, as he parked the car as close to the front door as he could, David saw the warm glow of lamps already lit and the twinkling lights of a Christmas tree through a window. The picture
painted was so at odds with the dark, austere atmosphere of his childhood home – indelibly imprinted on his memory – that he felt a sudden sense of euphoria at its apparent
transformation. Perhaps the fire
burnt away the past, metaphorically as well as physically. He only wished his mother were still here to see its remarkable rehabilitation.
‘It does look rather lovely, doesn’t it? Right,’ he said, opening the car door and causing a shower of snow to slide off the roof, ‘let’s make a run for it.
I’ll come back for the cases and presents later.’
David walked around the car to open the passenger door and Greta climbed out cautiously, her slip-on town shoes disappearing, along with her ankles, into the deep snow. As she looked up at the
house and then down at her snow-submerged feet, a sudden memory stirred.
I’ve been here before . . .
Standing stock-still, in shock that this moment had finally come, she desperately tried to grasp the fragment of remembrance. But it was already gone.
‘Come on, Greta, you’ll catch your death standing out here,’ said David, offering her his arm. And together they walked the few yards to the front door of Marchmont Hall.
After they’d been greeted by Mary, the housekeeper who had worked at Marchmont for over forty years, David showed Greta to her bedroom and left her to take a nap. He imagined that the
stress of deciding to actually leave her home for the first time in years, coupled with the long journey from London, must have worn her out.
Then he wandered into the kitchen in search of Mary. She was rolling out pastry for mince pies at the newly fitted central island. David cast his eyes around the room, admiring the gleaming
granite worktops and the sleek, integrated units that lined the walls. The kitchen and bathrooms had been David’s only concession to modern design when he’d planned Marchmont’s
restoration. All the other rooms had been modelled on the original interior, a daunting task that had involved weeks of research and days spent poring over archive photographs in libraries, as well
as dredging his own childhood memories. Armies of local craftsmen had been employed to ensure that everything from the flagstone floors to the furniture was as close as possible to the old
‘Hello, Master David.’ Mary’s face broke into a smile as she looked up. ‘Jack telephoned ten minutes ago to say your Tor’s train was delayed because of the snow.
They should be here in about an hour or so. He took the Land Rover, so they’ll be fine getting back.’
‘It was good of him to offer to pick her up. I know how hard it is for him to spare time away from his duties on the estate. So, how do you like the new facilities, Mary?’
. Everything is so fresh and new,’ she replied in her soft Welsh accent. ‘I can’t believe it’s the same house. It’s so
warm in here these days, I hardly need to light the fires.’
‘And your flat is comfortable?’ Mary’s husband, Huw, had died a few years ago and she had found it isolated in the estate cottage all alone. So, whilst he was working with the
architect on the new plans for the house, he had incorporated a suite of rooms in the spacious attic for Mary. After what had happened before, he felt happier having someone permanently on site if
Ava and Simon had to go away.
‘Oh yes, thank you. And it has a wonderful view over the valley, too. How’s Greta? To be honest with you, I was amazed when you told me she was coming here for Christmas. Indeed to
goodness, I never thought I’d see the day. What does she think?’