Last November I had a nightmare. It was 1924 and I was at Riverton again. All the doors hung wide open, silk moving in the summer breeze. An orchestra perched high on the hill beneath the ancient maple, violin music melting lazily in the warmth. The air rang with laughter and the sky was the kind of blue we’d all thought the war had destroyed forever. I saw myself, the way one does in dreams, moving amongst the guests. Moving slowly, much more slowly than one can in real life. I was looking for someone. Then the picture changed and I was near the summer house, only it wasn’t the summer house at Riverton I loved so much. This was not the shiny new building Teddy had built but an old structure with ivy climbing the walls, twisting itself through the windows. Someone was calling me. A voice I recognized. It was coming from behind the building on the lake’s edge. And then I saw her. Hannah was wearing a wedding dress, mud splattered across the front. She looked up at me, her face pale where it emerged from shadow. ‘You’re too late,’ she said. And then I woke up.
I know what brought it on, of course. It was the letter from the filmmaker. I don’t receive much mail these days: the occasional postcard from a holidaying friend; a letter from the bank where I keep a savings account; an invitation to the christening of a child whose parents I am shocked to realize are no longer children themselves.
The letter had arrived on a Tuesday morning late in November and Sylvia had brought it with her when she came to make my bed and do the laundry. She’d raised heavily made-up eyebrows and waved the envelope.
‘Mail today. Something from the States by the look of the stamp. Your grandson, perhaps?’
SI gave her the weekly £50 and opened the letter. But it wasn’t from Marcus at all. It was from a young woman, Ursula Ryan, making a film about the past. She wanted me to look at her sets, to remember things and places from long ago, to tell her what our life was like back then. As if I hadn’t spent a lifetime pretending to forget.
At first, I ignored that letter. I folded it carefully and slid it inside a book I’d long ago given up reading. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it. The letter brought back to my mind the tragic events connected with Robbie and the Hartford sisters. I remembered a documentary I had watched months ago. Robbie’s face on the screen and his name printed across the bottom made my skin prickle. But nothing more happened. There was no mention of either Emmeline or Hannah.
Another time, reading the newspaper, my eye was drawn to Emmeline’s name in a write-up in the television guide; a program celebrating seventy years of British films. I noted the time, wondering if I dared watch it. In the end I fell asleep before it finished. There was very little about Emmeline. A few publicity photos, none of which showed her true beauty, and a clip from one of her silent films.
But these previous situations didn’t involve me. Ursula’s letter was different. It was the first time in over seventy years that anyone had associated me with the events, had remembered that a young woman named Grace Reeves had been at Riverton that summer. It made me feel vulnerable somehow, singled out, guilty.
No. I was certain. That letter would remain unanswered.
And so it did.
Strange things began to happen, though. Memories pushed back to the dark corners of my mind a long time ago, began to sneak through cracks. I have surprised myself. While moths have torn holes in my recent memories, I find the distant past is sharp and clear. Lately these ghosts from the past come much more often, and I am surprised to find I don’t mind them. Not nearly so much as I had supposed I would. I had forgotten, I suppose, that there were some bright memories in amongst the dark.
When the second letter arrived last week I knew I was going to say yes, I would look at the sets. I was curious, a sensation I hadn’t felt in some time. There is not much left to be curious about when one is ninety-eight years old, but I wanted to meet this Ursula Ryan who plans to bring all these people to life again, who is so passionate about their story. So I wrote her a letter, had Sylvia post it for me and we arranged to meet.adapted from House at Riverton by Kate Morton
7.1. In the nightmare, Grace (! saw her own wedding reception.) ( met a woman she knew.) (! came across a familiar summer house.) (! heard a stranger calling her.)
7.2. The letter Grace received ( was brought by her maid.) (! had been sent by her relative.) (! concerned her American grandson.) (! contained details of her bank account.)
7.3. The author of the letter wanted Grace to (! play a part in a film.) (! give advice to the cast.) ( become a consultant for the film.) (! provide some documents from long ago.)
7.4. The first letter from Ursula (! made Grace read a book about the events from the past.) (! encouraged Grace to watch some films with Emmeline Hartford.) ( reminded Grace about some TV programs she had watched.) (! brought back memories of happy days with the Hartford sisters.)
7.5. Grace decided to answer the second letter because she (! wanted to find out what had really happened at Riverton.) (! decided to convince people that she wasn’t guilty.) (! regretted she had lied about the events at Riverton.) ( got interested in the woman who had contacted her.)