I have been absolutely desperate to read The Wildflowers by Harriet Evans because I so loved another of her books, The Butterfly Summer, my review of which you can read here. Sadly, emergency trips to hospital with my Mum and other family illnesses have stolen my reading time. However, I’m delighted to be part starting off these launch celebrations with an extract from The Wildflowers today.
I’d like to thank both Anne Cater for inviting me to be part of the tour and Becky Hunter for sending me a copy of The Wildflowers.
The Wildflowers will be published on 5th April 2018 by Headline Review and is available for pre-order here.
Tony and Althea Wilde. Glamorous, argumentative … adulterous to the core.
They were my parents, actors known by everyone. They gave our lives love and colour in a house by the sea – the house that sheltered my orphaned father when he was a boy.
But the summer Mads arrived changed everything. She too had been abandoned and my father understood why. We Wildflowers took her in.
My father was my hero, he gave us a golden childhood, but the past was always going to catch up with him … it comes for us all, sooner or later.
This is my story. I am Cordelia Wilde. A singer without a voice. A daughter without a father. Let me take you inside.
An Extract from The Wildflowers
Dorset, August 2014
The abandoned house covered in bindweed and brambles didn’t look like anything much, when first glimpsed from the lane.
But after the two men had struggled through the tangled mass of wild flowers and creepers surrounding the house they came upon a porch. The steps up were blackened with rot; on the porch itself rested a long-abandoned cane chair, bleached silver-grey by the wind and the sea and chained to the decaying floorboards by the tendrils of a pink-and-sage Virginia creeper. Below came the shingling slap of gentle waves and when you turned towards the sound of the sea there was Worth Bay, curving away from you, cream-yellow sands, turquoise water, chalk-white rocks in the distance.
Dave Nichols, trainee agent at Mayhew & Fine, watched in irritation as Frank Mayhew paused on the sandy path, fiddling in his pocket for the key. It was a boiling hot day, the sun beating down remorselessly. A mother and a young girl in swimming costumes, carrying towels, passed by on their way to the beach, looking at them with curiosity. Dave felt stupid, standing there in his smartest suit in front of this rotten old building.
‘I don’t understand,’ he said sulkily, ‘why we have to value it when the old girl’s not going to sell.’
Frank tutted in disapproval. ‘Old girl! That’s Lady Wilde to you, Dave, and she’s not long for this world – have some respect. Listen. In a few months when she’s gone, the family’ll most likelwant to sell. They don’t care about the place, that’s obvious. That’s where we come in, see?’ He turned to take in the glorious view of the bay, then glanced at his slouched, sullen trainee, the son of an old golfing buddy, and sighed very gently. ‘If we play our cards right, we’ll be the agents to handle the sale. Houses on Worth Bay don’t come up often. There’s only ten or so of ’em. The Bosky – it’s prime beach-front property, this place.’
Dave shrugged. ‘It’s a wreck,’ he said, staring at the bindweed, the algae-coated windows. ‘Look at these floorboards! Rotten through, I shouldn’t wonder.’
‘Most buyers don’t care. They’ll just level it and start over again.’ Frank pulled the bindweed and dead roses away, then inserted the key, pushing against the peeling door with difficulty. ‘Makes me sad, seeing it like this, if I’m honest. How it must be for Lady Wilde, stuck in that old people’s home up the road, looking out over it all day, I’ve no idea. Bugger me, this is jammed fast. Come on, you—’ He threw his rotund form against the frame. Nothing happened. Frank stepped back and to the side, looking through one of the shuttered windows. ‘Hmm . . .’ he said, bouncing on his heels, and then suddenly he gave a loud, outraged yelp.
Dave, who’d been staring at the view, turned in alarm: Frank had sunk a foot or so into the ground, the wooden boards simply melting away, as though they were made of butter.
Trying not to laugh, he lent Frank his arm as the older man pulled himself out of the hole, with some difficulty.
‘I’ll explain that to Lady Wilde myself.’ Frank smoothed down his ruffled hair. ‘Now, you give me a hand. It’ll come open with a bit of extra oomph. That’s it—’ Together they fell against the door: it gave way with an aching crack, and the two men tumbled inside.
As the warm, musty smell of the dark house tickled their noses Frank turned on his torch, shining it around the hall. He pulled the yellowing tendril of some dead plant from the ceiling.
‘Well,’ he said quietly. ‘Here we are.’
Dave sniffed the musty air. ‘Perfume. I can smell perfume.’
‘Don’t be daft,’ Frank said, but he shivered. This was air that no one else had breathed for years; it felt heavy with something.
There was a cloakroom to his immediate left, and stairs in front of him, down to the bedrooms below. Off to the right was the kitchen, and to the left was the sitting room which had French windows leading back on to the porch.
‘Let’s open these,’ said Frank, going into the kitchen, flicking back the faded sand-coloured curtains, the original colour now long forgotten. In the corner of the room, a window seat padded with faded yellow-and-grey patterned fabric and dotted with a decade’s worth of dead flies and wasps faced the porch. The galley kitchen was at the back, the windows looking out over the lane.
There was nothing on the surfaces or shelves, no sign of occupation.
Frank flicked a switch a couple of times. ‘No, not a thing.’ He sniffed. ‘I can smell something too. Scent, or flowers, or something.’ He shook himself. ‘Right. Let’s open some windows. Get some fresh air and light in and we can go downstairs and measure up the bedrooms.’
But the window frames were too swollen with damp to open and after struggling for a minute they both gave up and went back into the hall.
Dave said, ‘The bedrooms are downstairs?’
‘It’s an upside-down house. All your living rooms are up here overlooking the sea. Bedrooms are for sleeping in, doesn’t matter what you’re looking at.’ Frank ran his hand along the bannister. ‘It’s a good idea. I used to dream of having a place like this when I was a lad.’
Dave stared at him, quizzically. ‘You knew them?’
‘Everyone knew them,’ Frank said. ‘They was quite something, the Wildes.’ He moved his torch up on to the wood-panelled wall and both men jumped, as a face leaped out at them. Frank recovered himself first. ‘It’s just a photo,’ he said, slightly shakily.
The picture on the wall gleamed in the darkness. A middle-aged woman with a floppy hat and large nose, smiling broadly, holding a dangling crab between her forefinger and thumb.
‘She looks like a witch,’ Dave said.
The torch juddered suddenly in Frank’s hand, lighting up a pair of faces.
‘Who are they? What – what on earth is all that?’ said Dave, eventually.
Frank moved the torch along, and slowly the walls were illuminated with more faces, staring out from frames. Faces laughing, gurning, smiling politely, groups clinking glasses together, children dancing – more faces, some in colour, most in black-and-white. There were theatre posters too, and newspaper cuttings.
‘That’s them,’ said Frank, gesturing. ‘Weren’t they quite something?’
Dave peered at the photo next to him. A beautiful Titian-haired woman sat with two girls on her knee, one blonde, the other dark. A group of adults reclined on the porch, glasses and cigarettes in hand. A grinning pair of young children danced on a beach: a boy and girl. More groups of smiling people. The man and woman were in the newspaper articles too, always elegantly dressed. In one they were holding hands and laughing, and she was turning slightly towards a knot of onlookers, waving with the other hand. Dave scanned the photos, sliding the torch along, plunging one, then another photo into white light and then darkness, searching for her. He stared at her, transfixed. She was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen.
‘“Anthony Wilde and his wife Althea arrive at the Royal Court for the First Night of Macbeth”,’ Dave read with difficulty, holding his phone up to the text. ‘“Curtain call went on for ten minutes as ecstatic crowd gave Mr Wilde a standing ovation.” OK then.’ He turned back as Frank reached into his briefcase. ‘Who the hell are they?’
‘I can’t believe you’ve never heard of Anthony Wilde,’ said Frank, pointing his laser measure at the walls. ‘Two point four metres. Greatest actor of his day. And that’s Althea Wilde, his wife. You must have heard of her. She was in Hartman Hall. Lady Isabella?’
Dave shook his head. ‘Nope.’
‘Lordy, Lordy. How can you not know Hartman Hall? Bigger than Downton, better ’n’ all.’ Frank sighed. ‘What about On the Edge? That sitcom about the older lady, talking into her mirror? That was her, too.’
‘Might ring a bell, maybe.’ Dave looked at her again, the long neck, the slightly too-large nose, the liquid green eyes flecked with hazel. She was staring at him, only him, in the gloom of the house. He turned his torch away from her. He didn’t like it, suddenly.
About Harriet Evans
Harriet Evans grew up in London. As a child she loved reading and making up stories. She then progressed on to teenage geekdom and agonised Sylvia Plath- style poetry it’s probably best not to dwell on. The career in musical theatre she’d always dreamed of never materialised for whatever reason, and so she ended up at Bristol University where she read Classical Studies. In her twenties she was lucky enough to get a job as a secretary at a publishers and instantly realised working with books was what she’d always wanted to do. She was a fiction editor for ten happy years but left in 2009 to write full- time, making up stories all day.
Harriet still lives in London with her family. She likes old films, property websites, sloe gin cocktails, feminism and Bombay Mix, not in that order.
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