It’s a Small World

Here is the third of the three short stories in the linked chain …


It’s a Small World

Clare Davenport ran her leather-gloved fingers over the train’s window, trying to see through to something other than the surly night. The train had ground to a halt again in its attempt to conquer the wrong kind of snow.

Travelling from Exeter to London and now back to Exeter during the week before Christmas had not been a good idea, but Clare had been desperate to see Laura again. Having those three unexpected dizzy spells in her autumn garden – pruning the roses, raking the leaves, feeding the chickens – followed by a series of crippling headaches, had been sharp reminders of her mortality. Throughout her professional career, taking photographs in the world’s most dangerous places, she’d miraculously survived with hardly a scratch, but sooner or later she knew something would crawl out of the Devonshire woodwork to bite her. She should be prepared for it. And being prepared entailed telling Laura the truth.

For more than thirty-five years Laura Forbes had lived her life thinking she was somebody else’s child. Believing Rupert had been her brother. When she’d actually begun to talk about Rupert in the patisserie several days ago, Clare’s avowed intention to put Laura straight and tell her everything had evaporated into the Christmas din.

The train squealed, grumbled and finally decided to lurch in the right direction. Clare stared at the window, seeing in it not her own anxious reflection but the face of the girl who was dearer to her than anyone else in the world.

* * *

Her housekeeper had left the log fire smouldering, some tomato soup on the stove and a plate of succulent sandwiches. Sighing with relief – God, it was good to be home – Clare left her suitcase in the hall, picked up the post and slumped onto the sofa. Bills, fliers – and an interesting-looking letter.

She tore it open.

It was from a man she’d never met. The curator of an art gallery in Edinburgh. His name was Hamish Macpherson. He was mounting a major exhibition of war photography in the spring. Would Clare like to contribute? Ideally, he hoped to have between forty and fifty photographs from her, taken from anywhere in the world. He’d leave her free to make her own choices, create her own themes. And he’d pay her a great deal of money for the privilege. He’d long been an admirer of her work. Please could she telephone him to discuss his proposal?

* * *

“I must say I’m sorely tempted.” Clare kicked off her snow boots in which she’d crunched her way across her garden into that of her next-door neighbour’s the following afternoon. Over the past five years, George Dawlish – a distinguished landscape gardener who refused to retire – had become a best friend and a discreet and trusted listener. She swung her legs onto his comfortable sofa.

“When I first decided to stop taking photographs, nobody could have persuaded me to look back at forty years’ worth of work. I’d had more than enough of it.”

“And now?” George poured them both a dry sherry.

“Now I think I could be ready.” Clare gulped at her drink. “This Hamish fellow seems to know what he’s doing. He says I could have my own room within the gallery. Exhibit ten of my best photographs on each of the four walls. Travel up to Edinburgh and stay there for a week in the best hotel at his expense. Help with the mounting and placement, and attend the press preview and launch party.”

“Sounds divine.” George grinned at her. “What’s not to like?”

“Only that I’d be delving into my rather murky past.” Clare admired the crackling fire. “Lay myself open to questions from the press. I might get some I’d prefer not to answer.” She looked across at George. “On the other hand, it would give me something creative to do over the next few winter months.”

“And,” George deftly read her thoughts, “you could ask Laura to the exhibition.”

“Exactly! You are a perceptive fellow!”

“We’ve known each other long enough.” George refilled their glasses. “I don’t suppose you managed to tell Laura anything?”

“No,” Clare said. “But in Edinburgh, if I can get her to myself for an hour, I could finally spill the beans.”

“Not before time… Have you dreamed up a title for your forty years of work?”

“Yes,” Clare said. “I thought I’d call my exhibition It’s a Small World.”

“That sounds wonderful, darling. I might fly up there myself and take a peek.”

“Consider yourself invited.” She raised her glass. “Here’s to the last forty years.”

* * *

Clare stepped back from the walls of her room in the Edinburgh gallery to inspect her handiwork. The photographs she’d so carefully chosen and developed during those long winter months in her Devonshire study looked imposing and dignified. They had style, tone and flair. Their composition was second to none. And each told a story; each of them told the truth. The well-lit gallery displayed them to perfection.

Hamish Macpherson stood in the doorway. “Your room looks stunning!” He moved towards her. “Are you pleased?”

“Delighted. It’s been worth the effort.” Clare shook off a faint feeling of dizziness. “Are you all set for tomorrow’s preview?”

“Rearing to go.” Hamish touched her elbow. “You’re looking tired, I hope we haven’t worked you too hard. May we take you for an early supper?”

“That’s a lovely offer, but I’m expecting Laura, my niece, at any minute. I’d better get back to make sure she’s safe and well.”

* * *

“My room looks wonderful.” Clare put down her desert spoon. “I’m longing for you to see it.” She looked across at Laura. “But before we both have a much-needed early night, I want to tell you something.” She touched her lips with her serviette. “It’s really quite important. It’s the other reason I invited you here. Not just to show you my glorious retrospective, but to tell you something about my past as a person, not merely as a photojournalist.”

“My darling aunt.” Laura gave her a dazzling smile. “You’re being very mysterious. I’ve no idea what you’re talking about.”

“How could you? It was one of the conditions of the deal I made with my sister. That however long it took, nobody else would tell you the truth but me.”

“Conditions? Deals? Your sister?” Laura frowned. “Is this a secret code?”

“Secret no longer, my darling girl.” Clare flushed. “I always call you that, but you absolutely really are. You’re my daughter. I’m not your aunt, I’m your mother.”

Laura’s spoon clattered to the floor. “What?”

“I’ll tell you the bare bones of the story fast before I lose all my courage. Tomorrow we can talk about the details.” Clare took a deep breath. “Way back in 1979, Jeremy Manners and I had a passionate affair. He was one of the most brilliant photographers I’ve ever met. We shared a flat in London on Primrose Hill. We were planning to marry the following year. Six weeks later, the helicopter in which he was travelling crashed on landing. He was killed outright. He knew I was pregnant with his child…. With you.”

Laura said, “I need a very large brandy.”

“Make that two.” Clare signalled to their waiter. “And let’s have coffee while I close the story.” She sat back as the waiter cleared the dishes. “I was devastated. I wanted to have my baby, but I also needed to support myself. Travelling the war zones of the world with a child was out of the question. My sister offered to take you in. She already had Rupert. She said it would be good for him to have a brother or sister. We agreed that my money would pay for everything you needed, and that when the time was right I’d tell you about our true relationship.”

Laura stood up, tears sparkling in her eyes. “Before my legs give way beneath me, I think you and I should share the biggest hug the world” She took Clare in her arms. “May I change my name to Davenport?”

* * *

Hamish Macpherson tinkled his pen against his glass of wine, calling for silence. “Ladies and gentlemen, thank you so much for being here in Edinburgh tonight for this very special preview. My gratitude extends to all the artists who’ve supported this marvellous exhibition. My wife, Melanie, has already spoken to many of you about creating a printed catalogue of the work that now enhances these walls. But before we go our separate ways, the brilliant photojournalist, Clare Davenport, has asked to say a few words.”

Clare stepped up to the small podium to join Hamish. “Thank you so much.” Her legs were shaking, her heart racing to a frenzied beat. A small sea of expectant faces stared up at her, among them her darling Laura and her dearest George.

“It’s been the most enormous privilege to collect more than forty years of work into a single room. My professional life is thus laid bare for everyone to see. But tonight I’m celebrating something else I wanted to share with you.

“My darling daughter and my best friend are here with me tonight. However much my work means to me, they mean even more. They are my own miraculously special world.”

The sea of hands clapped. Clare swallowed bravely.

“A few days ago my doctors in Exeter gave me six months to live.” She smiled through her tears, held up her hands for the gentle hush that followed the gentle gasp. “I promise you all I shall use every single one of the days ahead of me to the best possible purpose. I shall work with Melanie on the catalogue. I shall spend as much time as I can with Laura and George. I won’t be taking any new photographs, but those you see here will stand as my legacy.”

She bent to pick up her glass.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I give you a toast. Let us all drink to the health and continuing strength of tomorrow’s small world.”

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