Camellia, p.1Lesley Pearse
Random House (2012)
* * *
Camellia Norton is orphaned at fifteen when her mother's body is fished from a river in rural Sussex. And when she discovers a cache of letters amongst her mother's effects she realises that the past she has always been so sure of has been built on a tissue of lies. Devastated, she runs away to London, and loses herself in a metropolis that offers opportunity, temptation and danger, especially to a young girl hungry for love and acceptance. But her past won't stay buried forever, and eventually Camellia begins the long journey towards uncovering the truth about her background, and also, ultimately, about herself.
Table of Contents
About the Author
By the Same Author
Also available in Arrow Tara
Lesley Pearse was born in Rochester, Kent, but has lived in the West Country for the last thirty-two years. She has three daughters and a grandson. She is the bestselling author of fifteen novels, including Ellie, Georgia, Tara, Camellia and Charity, all five of which are published by Arrow.
Also by Lesley Pearse
Never Look Back
Till We Meet Again
A Lesser Evil
* Also available in Arrow Books
This eBook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author's and publisher's rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.
Published by Arrow Books 2007
16 18 20 19 17
Copyright © Lesley Pearse 1997
Lesley Pearse has asserted her right under the Copyright, Designs and
Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work
This novel is a work of fiction. Names and characters are the product of
the author's imagination and any resemblance to actual persons, living or
dead, is entirely coincidental
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First published in Great Britain in 1994 by William Heinemann
First published in Great Britain in paperback in 1997 by
First published by Arrow Books in 1998
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1965 Rye, Sussex
'Hey mister.' A small boy tugged at the policeman's sleeve. 'There's a woman in the river!'
Sergeant Simmonds put his cup of tea on the counter of the quayside snack bar, looked down at the carroty haired boy and grinned good-naturedly. 'Swimming, boating or doing her washing?'
'She's dead, mister. Stuck in the mud!'
The boy was no older than seven, in torn shorts and a grubby tee shirt, his black gym plimsolls covered in mud, a handful of worms squirming in the bottom of a red toy bucket.
His expression was too earnest for a prank. He was out of breath and there were beads of perspiration on his little freckled nose.
'Where was this, sonny?'
'Way along there.' The boy pointed across the river, in the direction of where the rivers Tilling-ham and Breed meet and turned together towards the Rother and Rye harbour. 'I was digging up some worms to go fishing and I saw her arms.'
It was a glorious August morning, mist fast retreating with the promise of another hot, sunny day. Not yet seven, too early for holiday-makers to mar the tranquillity of the quayside, hours before day-trippers would arrive in their droves to admire the quaint old town.
Sgt Simmonds patted the boy's head. 'Go on home for your breakfast, sonny. Leave it with me. I'll check it out.'
'Maybe it's a stranded mermaid?' Alf, the snack bar's proprietor leaned forward over the counter, his swarthy, thin face breaking into a sardonic grin. 'That could be good for trade!'
'What imaginations some kids have!' Simmonds laughed, watching as the boy ran off down Wish Ward. 'Probably nothing more than a lump of driftwood. But I suppose I'd better amble round there and take a look.'
Bert Simmonds was thirty-six and easily the most popular policeman in Rye. Men admired his good humour and his prowess as a fast bowler in the local cricket team, children appreciated his friendly interest in them and the way he didn't always inform their parents about every act of naughtiness, not if he thought just a sharp telling off would do instead. As for the women, they just liked him, he was easy to talk to, just handsome enough with his blond hair and sea-blue eyes to set their pulses racing, but remarkably unaware of the effect he had on the opposite sex.
People were often fooled into thinking Simmonds was a soft touch because of his amiable disposition. In fact, there were few policemen in the rural areas of Kent or Sussex with as many arrests to their name, and very few with his tenacity or sharp wits.
Simmonds took his time going back along the quay and over the bridge, savouring the still cool air. Another hour or two and the High Street would be packed. He loved Rye, but it was too small a town to cope with the hordes of visitors it attracted in summer.
There was no real footpath on the other side of the river bank, just a track behind the laundry, overgrown with struggling buddleia bushes and nettles. Several times Bert had to make a detour round old sheds and climb through fences, but if he'd taken the easier route along New Winchelsea Road he might just miss whatever it was that the boy had seen.
Bert walked on, smiling as he remembered other 'bodies' that had been reported to him in the past. One was an abandoned dressmaker's dummy, another merely a lump of wood to which some joker had attached old boots. Two very serious small boys had once informed him they'd seen a man burying a baby on the marsh. When they directed Bert to the spot it had turned out to be a dead cat. But all reports had to be checked out. There were a few boating accidents each summer and swimmers sometimes underestimated the strong current.
The tide was out now, thick glutinous mud gleaming in the early sun, the river just a thin trickle in the centre, making its way down to the sea. Ahead the marsh went on almost to infinity, broken only by the ruins of Chamber Castle and a couple of coastguards' cottages on the distant horizon. Black-faced sheep had the marsh all to themselves. The only sounds were the plaintive cries of the curlews and seagulls.
It was the seagulls which made Simmonds break into a run as he approached the sluicegates of the river Breed. Their shrieking and frenzied wheeling overhead suggested there was something in the mud, if only a drowned sheep.
But as he got closer, he saw a flash of turquoise. It lay on a high triangular mud bank, between the two rivers, brilliant against the brown mud. Four or five gulls were perched on it, pecking furiously and more were zooming down like fighter planes.
'Scram you blighters/ he yelled, hurling a stone at them. As they flew off squawking with frustration at having to leave their breakfast, Simmonds stopped short, staring in horror.
The boy was right. It was a woman. Instinctively he knew too who she was, even though she lay face down, half-submerged in mud. The curve of her hips, rounded buttocks and long slender legs gave her away immediately.
'Oh no, not you, Bonny,' he whispered, fighting against nausea. 'Not like this!'
He knew the correct procedure was to get help, before he even touched her, but he felt compelled to reach her and prevent the gulls pecking at her again. Throwing down his jacket on the bank, he lowered himself over the edge and inched forward.
In his fifteen years in the police force in Rye, this one woman had taken him through the whole spectrum of emotions. He'd admired her, desired her, and more recently despised and pitied her. As a young constable her sensual beauty had haunted his dreams.
There were cruel peck marks now on her thighs and arms, and as another gull swooped down to feast, he lunged at it.
'Clear off, you blasted scavengers! Leave her alone/ he bellowed, his feet sinking deeper into the mud.
The sound of a car stopping on the bridge by the sluicegate brought Simmonds back to his senses. As he turned his head and saw PC Higgins and Rowe clambering over the fence, he remembered that he could easily sink up to his waist in the mud without a rope.
'We had a telephone call at the station/ Higgins yelled. 'An old man out walking his dog saw something. We brought some waders just in case. Any idea who it is?'
'It's Bonny Norton/ Simmonds called back, struggling to regain his footing and his composure. 'We must get her out before a crowd gathers. Get the waders on and bring some rope and boards.'
It was obscene to haul out such a beautiful woman by her feet. The body which so many men had lusted after was revealed intimately as her dress was sucked back by the mud. Her lace panties were turned a filthy brown from the river, her golden skin smeared with muck. But as they turned her over on reaching firmer ground, one breast broke free from her bodice, pure white, pink tipped, small and perfect. All three men averted their eyes in embarrassment.
Higgins moved first, covering her with a blanket. 'What the hell was she doing by the river?' he said gruffly.
Rowe shrugged his shoulders. He was several years younger than his colleagues, a dour insensitive man who hadn't been in Rye long enough to have known Bonny in the old days. 'Drunk as usual, I expect.'
At twelve noon of the same day, Bert Simmonds came out of the police station and lit up a cigarette. He needed time alone to collect himself.
The police station was in Church Square, right opposite the parish church: a small Victorian redbrick building set back from the rest of the terrace, almost as if it were apologising for having had the impertinence to sit amongst its fourteenth and fifteenth-century neighbours. A new police station was being built in Cinque Port Street, down near the railway station. Though Bert welcomed this move for practicality, he knew he would miss the peaceful churchyard, the splendid views of the marsh from the back of the station and its central position. But today he wasn't considering the beauty of his surroundings, as he usually did when he paused here. His mind was filled with Bonny.
Finding her body was one of the most traumatic events in his entire career. Now he was faced with breaking the news to her daughter.
It was so hot. His shirt was damp with sweat and his serge trousers sticking to his legs, still smelling of river mud.
'How do you tell a fifteen-year-old something like this?' he sighed.
From the first day in the summer of 1950 when Bonny, with her husband and baby, moved into the pretty house in Mermaid Street, she had made an impact on the town. It wasn't just that she was only twenty-one and stunningly beautiful, or that her serious-faced, much older husband was wealthy enough to call in craftsmen to renovate their home. She was outstanding in every way.
Bonny was an embodiment of the leap forward from the austere war-torn forties to the fifties. Her blonde hair was pure Hollywood glamour, she wore brightly coloured tight sweaters, mid-calf clinging skirts and high heels. The sight of her tight round buttocks wiggling provocatively as she wheeled her baby in a pushchair was enough to stop traffic, and the way she spoke airily of her time in West End theatres left her more retiring neighbours gasping in astonishment. There were those of course who didn't really believe she'd been a dancer, but she soon set the record straight when she joined in an amateur production and left the local girls looking like carthorses. The Desk Sergeant summed her up in a few well chosen words: I've seen pictures of girls they call "Sex Kittens", but until I saw Bonny Norton I thought it was just a photographic trick.'
Bonny was an enigma: a pin-up girl, but a loving wife and mother too – at least in those days. While men envied John Norton and secretly lusted after his wife, their women befriended her, tried to emulate her style.
Bert was guiltier than anyone of watching her too closely when she first arrived in town. He too was only twenty-one then, the youngest constable at the station, a shy, rather awkward young lad. It was a good couple of years before he so much as spoke to her.
One summer when Camellia was around three or so, Bert found her sitting on the doorstep in Mermaid Street playing with her dolls.
She was an odd little girl, very plain considering how beautiful her mother was, with poker-straight dark hair and almond-shaped dark brown eyes, old beyond her years. Bert guessed she was a bit lonely; he'd never seen her playing with other children. He paused to chat to her that day and before long their conversations became a regular feature of his beat. She would tell him where her daddy had gone on business, show him her dolls and books. Bert often brought her a few rationed sweets.
The first time Bert was invited into the Nortons' home was engraved deeply on his memory, perhaps because it was his first real close-up view of them as a family. It was a hot summer's evening,and as always he was lingering longer than necessary in Mermaid Street.
Camellia was sitting on the doorstep in a long pink nightdress, holding a small doll in her hands. As Bert approached her serious small face broke into a wide, welcoming smile. 'My daddy's come
'Has he now?' Bert crouched down on his hunkers beside her. John Norton was one of the top scientists for Shell Petroleum and was often away in the Middle East.
'Daddy brought me some new things for my doll's house. Would you like to see them?'
A gust of laughter from inside the house warned Bert the Nortons had visitors. He was just going to make an excuse when John came to the door. 'Bedtime, Melly,' he said, scooping the little girl up into his arms.
John Morton had the label of 'a real gent' in Rye. He was always impeccably dressed in hand-tailored suits, with sleek dark hair, a neat moustache and a deep yet soft voice. A great many women likened him to the actor Ronald Coleman. His face was too lean and his manner too serious to be considered really handsome, but yet he had a quiet endearing charm. He lifted his hat to women, always remembered people's names and asked about their families. Local tradesmen never had to chase him to pay his bills. He was courteous to everyone, however humble their status in life and he'd been accepted into the community in a way which was rare for a relative newcomer.
'This is Mr Simmonds, my friend,' Camellia said, playing with her father's moustache. 'Can he come and see my doll's house?'
'I've heard a great deal about you, Mr Simmonds,' he said and he smiled as if he liked what he'd heard. 'I'm pleased to meet you at last. The house is packed as always, but do come in. I'm sure my wife would love to meet you too. Maybe Camellia might be persuaded to go to sleep once she's shared her new treasures with you.'
Bert had never seen the inside of the house before, but it was just as perfect as he'd imagined it to be.
There was only one large room downstairs, with polished oak floorboards, thick fringed rugs and antique furniture. Everything just perfect in that understated, classy way that rich people had of doing up their homes. The Nortons' friends were all plummy voiced strangers to him, six couples in all, elegantly dressed, standing around with drinks in their hands. They smiled as John introduced him, but Bert felt uncomfortable.
Camellia by Lesley Pearse / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes