The Prologue

The past is set in stone and honed with the razor-sharp edges of permanence and truth. But it hides in the deep, mossy crevices of time gone by, and with every passing year retreats further and further away from your seeking fingers.

Mid-March 2014 – Old Priory Hall, Monks Bottom, Oxfordshire

I was the one who found him on my usual Saturday morning drop-in for lunch, but it was no duty visit. I loved my Pa. The big iron key in the lock, a merry shout of, ‘Hi, it’s only me,’ and dumping down two Waitrose bags on the stone slabs of the hall floor. A crusty baguette, ripe brie, onion marmalade, and the indulgence of a GU Brownie as a pudding. No sign that anything was wrong. The doormat cleared of The Guardian, and the large pile of post he always received. Classic FM playing out from the music room at the back of the house and the overpowering smell of lavender wax polish, as applied by Sheila, his devoted cleaning lady.

He would be installed in his shabby, old tapestry chair looking out onto the long lawn, or sitting at the Steinway baby grand, playing chords and annotating. I waited for his strong reply of, ‘Hello, lovely,’ as he nimbly got to his feet and came out to greet me. A kiss on my cheek, following me to the kitchen, uncorking a worthy red and helping to set the table. But no call came.

He was slumped in his chair, head flopped to the side, glasses askew, and a shocked look on his face. His hand still holding a score pen, a sheet music pad on his lap, and Dowland, his British Blue, mewing loudly at his feet.

June 1965 – The Sheldonian Theatre, Broad Street, Oxford

The beautiful child beamed widely as loud applause followed her performance, and a cultured voice from the audience called out, ‘Bravo. Bravo.’ She swung the thick curls of her ponytail, and skipped off the stage with her violin aloft, twirling the full skirt of her summer dress (Butterick Pattern 3476, yellow gingham cotton at 2/11 a yard from Cape’s on Walton Street, and run up on the old treadle in the back room of No.55). An overweight, ageing woman, sitting awkwardly on the ancient tiered seating benches, turned to address those around her. ‘My daughter,’ she bragged. ‘Our Angela. She’s only eleven, and we’ve just heard she’s passed her scholarship to Milham Ford as well’.

In the privacy of an ante-room, the judges sat in a brow-furrowed huddle. ‘It’s clearly a two-horse race,’ said one. ‘The red-haired boy or the little darkie girl. Both with huge potential. Shall we vote?’ Three hands went up for each.

Piers Penney sighed loudly. ‘Then the casting vote is up to Yehudi.’ They turned their eyes to the renowned man who was holding out his hands, as if weighing a large potato in each palm. ‘The boy’s violin definitely pipped the girl’s, but she had the far superior voice.’ He paused at length to procrastinate and then nodded firmly. ‘I’m going with the boy. She to be runner-up, of course.

Mid-March 2014 – Old Priory Hall, Monks Bottom

In a state of panic I ran outside screaming loudly for the new jobbing gardener, a large man I’d not yet spoken to, and had only seen at a distance with branch loppers in hand. Icy rain blew in the wind, I could smell a distant bonfire, and magpies croaked, but the real world was a distant place.

Within seconds, in a blur of army surplus khaki, he came running up the lawn, taking my arm with gentle kindness, guiding me to the kitchen and sitting me on chair. ‘Sit there and breathe slowly. I’ll away and deal with things.’ I heard him talking on the land-line; a benign Scottish bur that was, in some strange way, comforting. He came back into the room, trying (but failing) to take quiet careful steps with his muddy boots. ‘Dr Gibson’s on his way. Just stay where you are the now, while I make you a wee cup of tea.’ Tea. An infusion of dried, bitter leaves in boiling water. Ever the antidote to a crisis, but as the hiss and gurgle of the kettle began to rise I sobbed on my hands.

Dr Gibson arrived within minutes, the gardener returned to his work, and all that remained of him was a gritty mess of earthy clods on the kitchen floor.

The doctor confirmed the death, pursed his lips and shook his head. ‘Quite, quite unexpected. I saw him last month for an annual check-up and he was in excellent shape for a seventy-five-year-old. Heart rhythms and BP were first rate, no prescribed medications, and I certainly had no concerns.’

I tried to smile. ‘It was only last week he did a little skip up the hall and said he felt as fit as a circus dog.’

A nod of professional sympathy. ‘I can only conclude there was a vascular weakness in the brain that suddenly gave out. Oh, I’m so sorry, Sarah. He was a delightful man.’

A flurry of phone calls then followed, both in and out, on mobiles and land-lines. My sisters suffering their own shock, arranging to drop everything and come over straight away. The reluctant contacting of Mark, my ex-partner, currently unemployed (ha!), requesting him to collect the boys from their music lessons in Summertown, and take them back to his flat for the night.

Then, sitting alone in shocked contemplation, my eyes closed, begging that when I opened them I would find it wasn’t true.

June 1965 – Broad Street, Oxford

The child’s family was, as Piers had hoped, gathered on the pavement outside the Sheldonian and he walked forward extending his hand. ‘Mr and Mrs Zendalic. Piers Penney. Choral Director at Tavistock College. I wondered if I might talk to you about Angela becoming a junior member of my choir.’

The child’s face lit up. ‘Yes, please,’ she said, looking to her mother for reassurance.

‘She’s enchanting,’ Piers said. ‘Such poise, and a rare tone of voice in one so young.’

With her membership of the choir agreed, he placed a finger under her chin, and looked intently into her face. ‘Goodbye, Angela. I can’t wait to hear you sing for me again.’

Early April 2014 – Old Priory Hall, Monks Bottom

With the cause of death confirmed as CVA (cardio-vascular accident), the death certificate was issued as per routine. Thereafter the broadsheets dedicated whole-page obituaries to the passing of Sir Piers Penney, the grand old man of Ancient English Music, and all were agreed. ‘He was a brilliant composer and choral arranger, and a great loss to the Arts. An entertaining, popular man, who will be sorely missed. He leaves a wife, Merryn, a Welsh harpist, and four daughters; Carrenza, a cellist, and twins Callista and Cassandra, both violinists, who perform together as the Magdeburg string trio, and Ceraphina, a renowned mezzo soprano.’

Yes, that was me. Ceraphina. The moniker used only as my stage name, and thankfully known to friends and family as Sarah. My successful career cheerfully abandoned for motherhood, and now a bitter member of the single-parent army. Recently made redundant from an appointment as singing advisor to Oxfordshire secondary schools.

It was three weeks after Pa’s funeral when my sisters and I gathered at The Hall to go through the simple terms of his will. The house to be sold, £250,000 invested to pay for our mother’s lifetime residential care, and the remainder divided into five equal beneficiaries; us four girls, and Pa’s music scholarship charity, The Penney Foundation. Our agreed duty of the day was to go through the contents, discuss ‘who wanted what’, and mark up the rest to be sent to auction, but our mood would be one of resigned misery that our childhood home, and the paradise garden our mother had created, would soon be to lost to us. However, I had a nail bomb to detonate, and I was certainly going to make them suffer the ferocious fall-out.

They must have noticed my dropped eyes and tight-lips from the minute they arrived. I opened the front door to each of them in silence, turning my back and by-passing the usual kisses of welcome, but they all clearly decided to make allowances by giving me short smiles of understanding. I was, after all, their baby sister who’d always been treated as such, and was the one who’d found our father in death.

‘Are you alright, darling?’ attempted Carrenza, putting an arm of sympathy round my shoulder.

But I sheered away. ‘Sod off, Carrie!’

‘There’s really no need for that,’ snapped a glaring Cassandra.

‘Oh, but there is need for that!’ I yelled. ‘You knew, didn’t you? All three of you. You bitches. You crones.’

I stomped out of the room, and came back with the paper document in my hand, waving it aloft as a politician on the hustings would display evidence to a crowd of hecklers. I started to read it aloud, and even I cringed at the ludicrous sound of my own full name. ‘Ceraphina Evangeline Penney. Date of birth, 15th February, 1973. Born John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford. Father Piers Penney.’ I slapped it down on the kitchen table with my voice rising to a virtual scream, so loud as to vibrate even my own eardrums. ‘Mother named as Angela Zendalic!’

I jerked my head forward in angry despair. ‘You all knew didn’t you? Now tell me. Who the hell was Angela Zendalic?’