On the train, I met the woman with no secret. Leaving my bike in Barnham station, I’d dashed up at the last minute, and jumped aboard as the guard blew his whistle.
“Does this go toVictoria?” I asked breathlessly. I was in trouble if it did not, for the train had started to move.
“Yes, it does, dear,” the woman passenger nodded, “though I’m only going as far as Brookvale myself.”
So I sat down opposite her with my back to the engine, and we got into conversation. She explained that she had been to the market inChichesterfor some early morning shopping, and was on her way home. My rich executive husband was abroad on a business trip. At least, I hoped that was all he was doing. He never spent much time nowadays with our two teenage children and me.
“I’m going to London to meet an old friend,” I confided to the woman. “An old flame really.” He’d been a boy-friend in my art school days. “I don’t think it will do any harm to meet him.” It had been my soul-searching about this which had made me nearly miss the train. “But it’s a secret from my husband. I can tell you because you don’t know us.”
“I’m glad I don’t have any secrets,” said the woman rather self-righteously. “I have a happy family life. I have a good husband and two sons.”
I could see that she had one secret. The roots of her immaculately permed blonde hair were dark. We were an ill assorted couple – she in her smart costume, me in my jeans and casual clothes. My own hair was dark, shoulder-length. Unlike the woman, I wore little make-up. I’d been told that I still looked young. Not that my companion looked old. She must have been about my age – which was then mid-forties.
“Yes, I have a husband and two fine sons. But I’m sorry,” she added wistfully, “that I have no little daughter.”
“I have a son and daughter,” I replied. “It’s nice to have one of each. But as long as you’ve got children, it’s nice.”
Maybe my face was sympathetic. She glanced around to see if we were alone. I think we were, but our carriage, as was becoming usual, was built without closed-in compartments, so someone could be quite near you and yet not be seen.
“I did have a little daughter,” said my companion, “but she died.”
So this was the woman with no secret? The woman who had just told me she had a happy family life, as if nothing had ever happened to cloud it!
“I’m afraid it was our fault. We have a farm, you see. Rosie used to play around in the daisy field, pretending she was a little pony. She was very fanciful – I didn’t understand it. We were going to give her a real pony when she was older. The boys ride the horses, but she was to have one of her very own. Girls especially like horses and ponies, don’t they? Our Rosie did anyway.”
“What happened to her?” I ventured.
“There’s – there’s a stagnant pool, you see. At least, there was. It’s been filled in now. It’s next to the field – at the edge of a copse.” The woman could scarcely bring herself to go on, yet she wanted to tell me, and I had guessed already. “We thought it was safe. But she must have climbed through the fence. As soon as she was missing, we thought of the pool.”
They had thought it was safe – yet as soon as she was missing, they had thought of the pool!
“George, the labourer, waded in and found the little body, caught in the reeds.” The woman broke down. “The pool wasn’t very big or deep, but she was such a little girl.”
A “happy family life”! Obviously the mother had never got over it. As if she could!
I would have offered her some tissues, but the lady was much more efficient than I was. So I was rummaging for crumpled tissues in my shoulder-bag when she took out her own neat box of them from her full shopping-basket. She was not the sort of lady you could put your arm round to console – at least, not on such a brief acquaintance – and anyhow she had soon recovered her composure.
“Thing was,” she resumed, “she’d never seemed like my daughter. I didn’t understand her with her fanciful ways. She took more after Alan, my husband, and his side of the family. He was always the dreamer. This was why he started the farm in the first place, but he made it work. Only, he didn’t take any notice of the stagnant pool.
In lots of ways, I’m the practical one. I should have pointed out the danger. I always thought he favoured Rosie over Frank and Jimmy, the boys. But I was the one who had favourites. While they were at school, or helping on the farm, she was too young. She used to play in the daisy field.”
I suppose there were not always daisies, but this was how the woman thought of it. No doubt there were daisies when the accident happened.
“She used to play in the daisy field, which I could only see just part of from the kitchen window. And I neglected her.”
“I’m sure you didn’t!” I cried, partly because I wanted to assuage her sense of guilt, partly because, although she was not the sort of person I altogether “took to”, she didn’t seem like a cruel woman.
“Oh, you know what I mean!” she exclaimed. “I fed her and clothed her. You know I’m talking about the daisy field. I left her to play on her own because I didn’t understand her.”
“You mean, you couldn’t join in her games how mothers sometimes do? I expect you were busy - ”
“I didn’t watch her carefully enough.”
There seemed to be no denying this. A stagnant pool, deep enough to drown a small child, and the child virtually unguarded! But the woman showed some understanding – in the way she linked her lack of understanding with the un-watchfulness.
“She haunts me now,” she said. “Often I look out over a field of daisies and I can see her playing.”
“I thought you said you weren’t fanciful,” I remarked.
“No, no, I’m not! I’m not talking about something I imagine. I’m talking about what I actually see – and hear. Sometimes she calls out to me from where the pool used to be – or from any pool.”
A little shiver ran through me, not caused by the partly open window on the spring morning. Had the accident and the sense of guilt unhinged the woman’s mind? It would not be surprising.
“Once,” she said, confirming my fears, “I was riding in the woods and I saw her little blonde head. Then I saw her face. I saw the whole upper part of her, high up among the branches. Her little hands were clasped together as if she were praying. Her eyes were closed and there was a tear on her cheek.”
I didn’t know what to say after this.
“I’m glad I’ve talked to you,” the woman told me gratefully. “I’ve never spoken to anyone about it before. Not to Alan or the boys – because they’ve gone all quiet about the accident, too. Now that I’ve spoken to you, I feel as if you’ve taken something away – lifted a burden from me. Maybe I won’t see or hear Rosie anymore.”
Perhaps I would have thought of something to say then, but the train sidled into Brookvale, a little country station, and with a murmured farewell the woman alighted.
Ashamed perhaps of having told me so much, she did not wave to me, or even look back.
Somewhere a child was crying.
It may be hindsight now which makes me believe I had misgivings then. But I think I recall a sinking in my stomach as I sat there, waiting for the train to pull out of that almost deserted station.
When it did, I saw that the houses had given way to trees and fields. I looked out on to a daisy field, where I could see a little girl, playing …