- Published: 19 October 2021
- ISBN: 9781761042454
- Imprint: Penguin
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 432
- RRP: $26.00
The Chocolate Tin
York – 1915
The argument had been tame, polite even, but there was no doubt in her mind that if she didn’t make a decision, it would be made for her. Alex Frobisher gave a small clicking sound and nudged her coal-coloured mare to pick up its pace. The familiar noise of hooves on the road soothed, tried to take her thoughts back to a time when the summers seemed to stretch forever in a warm recollection of shared laughter and Scotland. Such happy days before that August afternoon of 1905 when darkness descended; it was this pain, she was sure, forever haunting the family, that was the root of her mother’s urgency for a wedding . . . even an unwelcome one for Alex.
Blackberry didn’t need guiding; she knew exactly where to turn left and enter the lush landscape of the sprawling green of the Knavesmire that flanked one of Britain’s favourite racecourses. The canter turned to a light gallop and soon they gained speed, the landscape melting into a pleasing blur of leaves. The glimmering late autumn sunlight that was toppling fast from its zenith of afternoon into that golden hour just before dusk, found the bluish hint of Blackberry’s coat to make it shimmer. The breeze tried desperately to whip free Alex’s hair that clung stubbornly to its pins beneath her riding hat; a few wisps escaped, particularly one determined strand enjoying freedom as much as she did.
Not only had her hair deepened to the colour of chocolate over the years, she felt her life had followed suit into maturity and this last year felt as though it had delivered her into a relentlessly dark mood.
She let the debate play out once more in her mind as she pulled gently on the reins to slow Blackberry’s arrival at the entrance again. The horse obliged, finding an easy walk, steamy breath blowing in the fading afternoon as a chill crawled over the open plain of the park. Alex relived the uncomfortable, sometimes heated conversation that unfolded as vividly in her mind as if she were living through it for the first time. She replayed it now like a motion picture.
There was her father in his tweeds, sipping on his afternoon tea, unhappily ignoring the pikelets he so enjoyed in order to escape the shrill combatants of his wife and daughter. He’d moved to the bank of tall windows with their small squares of glass panes framed by heavy plum velvet curtains to look out across the grounds of the sprawling, champagne-brick pile called Tilsden Hall. This had been home to the Frobishers for decades and Alex knew he searched out the duckpond. She instinctively understood that her father was wishing he could stroll now to the pond and gaze out at the two swans moving peacefully across the glass-like surface. Instead, he was suffering through yet another debate between the women in his life.
Alex watched her mother lift her eyes to the garishly painted ceiling in the Arts and Crafts style that her elder had embraced so eagerly. Minerva had often claimed that it was a ‘folk style’ of yesteryear, but her daughter glanced now at the frantic circus of flowers and geometric shapes on the timbered ceiling and felt a familiar gush of embarrassment. Alex switched her gaze to her mother. Minerva Frobisher’s pinched nostrils and pursed lips gave the impression they were shutting out the effect of something particularly putrid.
‘Mother,’ Alex appealed. ‘I really must be allowed to make some decisions of my own.’
‘You can. You may choose whether you wish to be formally engaged to Edward St John, Ashley Langdon-Smith, Duncan Cameron, or indeed courted by all of them.’
‘Then if it’s up to me, I choose none of them.’
Her mother baulked, gave a low gasp of indignance. Her father cut Alex a look of soft despair as though admonishing her for prodding an already enraged beast. She returned it with a tiny shrug of apology; they both knew he was about to be drawn into the discussion he’d aimed to avoid.
‘What do you have to say to that?’ Minerva demanded.
Frobisher strolled back to stand near the fireplace where its blackened ironwork beneath the mahogany mantelpiece pro-claimed its 1898 installation in bold relief. He turned his back to the gently dancing flames to pick up a warm pikelet that he folded neatly, careful not to spill a drop of the oozy butter or glistening jam. He bit into it deliberately to avoid speaking and nodded that he’d answer shortly when his mouth was no longer full.
Fresh exasperation was sighed out by Minerva. ‘Alexandra,’ she continued, ‘you should have been married years ago. But as an only child we’ve indulged you. We’ve given you plenty of time, far more than most daughters, plus you’ve grown up in a world of entitlement –’
‘I am aware of that, Mother,’ she said, trying hard not to snap her words.
‘Are you? Really, darling, are you? Because you show no indication that you’re seriously taking on board your role.’
‘Please . . .’ Alex began.
‘While I pray each evening that Cousins Hugh and George are spared, I fear daily that both could be gone from us in a blink. I know that men’s lives are being cut down by the thousands, daily. Someone in this family has to be realistic about your future. Without Peter –’
Alex leapt in to cut off her parents. She didn’t want to travel the whole emotional journey again. ‘I know, Mother. You want me to marry and give you grandsons, retain Tilsden. I do realise this.’
‘Both of us want this. But actually, Alexandra, I’m genuinely concerned that there is someone to look after you. Your father may not wish to press you but I know that women don’t get nearly as much say as they would like. Now, we can rail against it and please don’t misunderstand me,’ she said, raising a finger. ‘I am full of admiration for courageous women who wish to change the way of the world, but our way, darling . . . is to cling to the traditional. I know you don’t want to hear this but I am going to say it one more time very clearly so you make no mistake about your job for the Frobisher family. And it is not any hare-brained idea of pursuing a career! You can’t possibly contemplate working for wages – or you certainly wouldn’t be considered marriage material. Besides, you know nothing about anything, frankly. Leave business to the men in your life – that’s their role. Yours, my darling girl, is to marry. Most young women aren’t given such a selection but we love you deeply and we do want you to be happy in your choice.’ It was impressive how her mother could give offence even when her words were chosen to show affection. ‘Each is ideal in almost every way.’
‘Except the most important.’
‘I barely knew your father when I was betrothed and I did not run from my duty to marry him, even though I was far younger than you are. I very quickly grew to respect him.’
‘What about love, though, Mother?’
‘Of course I love your father,’ Minerva replied, with fresh indignance but conveniently missing the point, Alex thought.
‘Well, just so that we’re all clear, I don’t respond to any of those three men.’
‘Respond?’ Her mother scorned. ‘What on earth does that mean, child? In what ways don’t you respond?’
‘Myriad ways,’she sighed. ‘Let’s make this simple. Edward is pompous and has viciously bad breath; Ashley is scared of spiders and prefers to sleep with a lamp on. Hardly heroic! Anyway, I sense Ashley is easily persuaded by his London society friends . . . and Duncan . . . well, Duncan is Scottish.’
‘He’s next in line as laird!’
‘Precisely. Do I really want to be lumped off to Ben Nevis, Mother?’ She hated how dismissive she sounded. These men were at the front, fighting for their lives, fighting for her privileged life to continue.
‘Duncan has a tremendous affection for you.’
‘Of course he does. His choice is limited. It’s me or a sheep, really, isn’t it?’ Sometimes her thoughts were spoken aloud before her mouth could capture them. Even through her shame she felt a helpless spike of triumph that her father guffawed over his second pikelet.
Charles’s amusement vanished as the tone of disapproval was now turned his way.
‘I despair of you, Alexandra Frobisher. Duncan deserves better.’
‘Mother, I know he’s your first choice but be fair. Duncan doesn’t want a woman to love. He wants a wife to show off, to run his household, to keep him warm in bed on those barren highlands,’ she said, unable to hide her irritation.
‘If it gives us heirs, so be it.’
She sighed, letting her shoulders visibly slump. ‘You can imagine that the Camerons would consider any son as their heir rather than yours.’
‘I don’t care. The sooner you get going at the business of making family, the better. Then I know there are children growing up around you who will look after you in time to come.’ Her mother raised her voice in deep exasperation.’We need grandchildren . . . grandsons would be lovely.’
‘Any sons’ surname would be Cameron, not Frobisher. How does this help us?’
‘Don’t be deliberately obtuse. I find it most vexing.’
‘Minerva.’ Her father finally finished his second pikelet. ‘Don’t, my dear. You know your blood pressure is high enough.’
‘Charles, I need your support in this.’
He nodded, put down his cup and saucer and sat next to Minerva, taking her hand in a sweet show of affection. Alex loved her father for it, especially as she knew all he craved was harmony, his daughter happy, wife content.
‘It’s all very well for you both, Charles. You live in a tiny world of two sometimes, every inch a daddy’s girl . . .’
Alex let her mother say her piece, congratulating herself that she didn’t leap in and say unlike all the other spoiled daughters of her mothers’ circle she didn’t call her father daddy any more but the more modern and urbane Dad.
Her father smiled awkwardly and then finally nodded and turned back to address her. ‘Alex, darling,’ he began and she gave him her full attention because Alex knew his word would be final. ‘This discussion began because you courageously shared with us that you wish to help out in the factory where they’re calling for volunteers.’
‘I do, Dad. And being around the Rowntree’s business is a place to get ideas too.’
She watched the familiar crinkle of his eyes as he smiled at her, dimples deepening in his cheeks. In that moment she was a little girl again looking into the face of the only man she adored. She didn’t glimpse his unguarded smile often enough . . . later this year it would be two decades of sorrow they’d be facing. She shook off the gloom, watching her father throw a look of gentle pride at his wife.
‘And, of course, living in York, who could blame you wanting to be involved in its main industry?’ he said. ‘What your mother is conveying rather baldly is that what we need you to do – as our only and much beloved daughter – is to follow through.’ He nodded to himself, liking this choice of expression. ‘We are not chocolate makers like the Rowntree family and –’
‘We’re not even Quakers,’ Minerva observed as though tasting something stale.
Charles shook his head. ‘There are many other ways to volunteer your time. And as for you dreaming of your own business, while I won’t flatly discourage it because you’ve always been an ambitious child . . .’ He hushed Minerva at her intended interruption. ‘Let me speak, Min, dear. Alex has been an independent girl with strong opinions and I think we can both agree that she has firm morals. She won’t let down anyone she loves, least of all us, so I think we have little to worry about.’
She thanked her dad with a nod and affectionate smile.
He lifted a finger of warning though and a pit opened in her belly. ‘However, women do have responsibilities right now to their men, to family, to helping to keep the country safe and ticking over through war. Avoiding your responsibility as the only remaining child in this family is breaking your mother’s heart.’
‘You could, of course, marry a Rowntree . . . even a Cadbury would do, and make your father and I happy,’ her mother interjected.
She ignored the remark. ‘Dad, I just think learning about business could inspire me. Please, I just want to do more than have the sum of my life being marriage.’
Her father took a deep breath to indicate that he understood. Alex opened her hands in appeal to hide her frustration, hoping it wouldn’t show in her voice. ‘Everyone we pass in the street is connected to chocolate, and anyway I can learn, Dad. Don’t you see? Just being around it would be enlightening.’
Another gasp of horror from her mother punctured her thin balloon of hope and her plaintive statement died in her throat. Alex tasted instant bitterness instead of sweet joy.
Charles Frobisher looked back at her with tenderness in his gaze, making it worse, but she fought against turning sullen on him. ‘No, my darling girl, you cannot. Association with the factory floor will not do – not for a Frobisher girl.’
Alex tried not to hear the clear dismissal. ‘Give me a chance, Dad. I think I can build a career for myself, be a woman of independent means.’
‘Career? Are you hearing yourself, Alex?’ Minerva demanded. ‘Because you sound deluded. Women don’t have careers, for heaven’s sake. This may be 1915 and you may well have modern ideas, but your job is to support your husband. You’re going to be the wife of an important man, one way or another, and a mother to his children. We need to know your future is secure. That is your career as a Frobisher girl. We’ve never raised you in doubt of your duty, surely? Daughters from families such as ours have their part to play in the family’s future. It’s time to deliver on all your privileges and do your bit.’
Alex hated to disappoint either of them but why couldn’t they understand she didn’t want any of the entitlement to which they both referred? Her uncle’s boys could have it all, if they lived long enough to take it on.
Alex let out an audible sigh and decided this was a battle best fought another day. She retreated, throwing appeasement their way to defuse the heat from her mother’s glare and the disappointment in her father that the two women in his life were at such loggerheads. ‘I cannot marry anyone right now because all our men are fighting for their lives, and ours, in Europe. Look, Dad, Mother, please don’t upset yourselves; the trio you refer to are likely each in trenches. They may not be suitable in my mind but it doesn’t mean they aren’t good men, brave and patriotic.’ She watched her mother’s frown loosen and felt her own relief let go. ‘We can’t make important decisions on marriage while the potential grooms are fighting a war. You come from a different age, both of you; you were born when a queen ruled an empire and we’ve already moved through a king since. We’re one quarter through 1915 and what is surely another year of war . . .’ She lifted a shoulder. ‘None of us knows what’s going to happen but I suppose the modern woman in me knows that we can’t halt progress no matter what. So, of course I will marry and of course I will give you grandchildren but I don’t know who that will be with or when. Can we agree not to discuss marriage until we know there’s peace?’
‘Deal!’ Charles said with a clap of his hands.
His wife turned her disbelieving gaze on him.
‘Alex is right, my dear. This conversation is academic until those three jolly fellows are freely available. Poor old Cameron’s being sent to Belgium or something, isn’t he?’
‘Well, they’ll get leave, won’t they?’ Minerva queried.
‘I’m sure they will at some time,’ her father agreed.
‘If they live long enough,’ Alex observed.
‘But I think our only precious child should make an informed decision when the world is in a less wretched frame of mind,’ her father continued. ‘Besides, it’s no good her agreeing to marry a man who doesn’t return from the battlefield. Imagine the trauma of that on all of us. What if she were married, pregnant, had a child?’
Bravo, Dad, Alex cheered inwardly.
‘Enough, Charles.’ The lower half of Minerva’s face seemed to disappear into her neck as if desperately forcing down a new line of attack, but none of her pinched disappointment was masked. ‘Right,’ she said, finding her new path. ‘So we’re agreed, then? All of us? When peace is regained, within six months of it, Alexandra, please will you allow me to make an announcement of your engagement?’ She eyed them both again, awaiting an answer.
‘I think that’s fair,’ Charles remarked to the fireplace. He bent again towards the tray of cooling pikelets.
‘You don’t need another, darling. Remember your indigestion.’
‘Yes, dear,’ he said, stealing a wink at his daughter and another pikelet.
She shifted her attention back to her mother because the tone was not to be ignored. ‘I want to hear your agreement to this pact we’re making as a family. Six weeks after formal peacetime you will be engaged. You will not break faith with this. I cannot have my daughter a spinster for much longer. This is a solemn promise you’re giving us, darling, all right?’
‘I agree,’ she said and her mother nodded, seemingly satisfied. Alex glanced away to the tall windows that flooded light into this room each afternoon. It was still a couple of hours to dusk and she needed to take some air.
They could hear the phone ringing distantly. A tap on the door sounded. A woman with a familiar hangdog expression entered. The often sombre-looking arrangement of her features belied the genial, kindly person who lived behind them. She’d been at Tilsden since before Alex was born and Charles Frobisher had acquiesced to the housekeeper’s insistence that no new butler was required since the war had dragged away so many of the men. She’d stepped up her role from housekeeper to shoulder most of the butlering responsibilities.
‘Yes, Lambton?’ Charles wondered.
‘It’s a gentleman, a Mr Britten-Jones, on the telephone, sir.’
‘Britten-Jones? All right, Lambton, thank you.’
‘Who is that, darling?’ Minerva wondered.
‘Do you remember the couple we met in Bath? He was involved in the expansion of the transport network in the west.’
‘Ruddy, built like a block of stone. Old money. New money too and lots of it – mind you, he’d need it. They had quite a crowd of a family, as I recall.’
‘Wife thin as a waif and extremely short, I seem to recall.’
‘That’s the one. Well, I’ve been doing some work with him via the railways this past couple of years. He’s a good sort. I like him. Excellent family. Strange he’d ring me at home, though.’
Alex followed her father to the door, smiling at Lambton, whose quiet yet somehow dominant personality she’d grown up to admire as close to a grandmother in her life.
‘I’m going to take Blackberry out,’ Alex announced to the room.
‘Rug up, darling. It’s going to be cold once that sun disappears behind those clouds coming in,’ Minerva called after her in an entirely cheerier tone. ‘Dinner’s simple and a bit earlier at seven as Nessie is going to the play that’s on at St Peter’s School hall,’ she said.
‘Your mother chose a beef pie for this evening, Miss Alex, one of your favourites,’ Lambton murmured as she held the door for her.
Alex looked back at her mother to see only affection in the smile, the row about marriage already forgotten.
As the new year of 1910 moved closer to its second month, the world marvelled that there had been so few deaths in Paris when the River Seine rose more than eight metres and flooded the city.
Max looked at his watch, and a sinking realisation that he was late plunged through him.
I didn’t dare look at the palm of my hand for fear of seeing the bruising arc pattern of fingernails from the clenching of my fist moments earlier.
He opened the new bag of coffee beans and inhaled, relishing the toasted aroma that his favourite brand of arabica gave off.
The air sagged beneath the burden of the day’s heat and the African sun felt as pitiless as her mother’s gaze upon meeting the man Louisa had chosen to marry.
Jean Farmer took the call, and regretted instantly that she’d been the one to pick up the phone.
Listen. Three miles deep in the forest just below Arnott’s Ridge, and you’re in silence so dense it’s like you’re wading through it.
Dear Amelia, There was an attempt to escape from the jail last night and a small riot ensued. Most unusual.
There was one other Arab onboard the ship to Marseille. His name was Faruq al-Azmeh, and the day after leaving port in Alexandria he approached Midhat at breakfast, with a plate of toast in one hand and a string of amber prayer beads in the other.
Dear young girls, Home again from the deserts and oases of the Sheikdoms I find your enthusiastic letters on my desk.