The first thing Daniel did was seek Aoife in the kitchen.
“We’re back,” he said without thinking. He instantly regretted it.
“Oh, did you go for a walk?” Aoife said mildly, without looking up.
Daniel winced at her unawareness of what had passed. He decided to own up.
“We went for a walk,” he clarified. “It’s very cold and windy.”
Aoife didn’t seem to want to know anything about the said walk. She was very preoccupied with her own thoughts, Daniel noticed. “Oh well,” he shrugged to himself. “Least said, soonest mended, and whoever made that saying up was certainly very clever.”
Dan went back into the sitting room. Apollo had curled up smugly on his cushion in the hall, unaware of the havoc he had caused without honest intention, and pleased with his exercise that afternoon. Rabbiting was forbidden, but it was his favourite sport, and he was very smug whenever he snatched a chance of chasing the pretty creatures. He would never hurt them. But he did love to watch their funny tails darting this way and that. If only they knew it was just a game. They seemed to find his happy grin and joyful bounding quite a threat. He wondered why.
The four girls sat in a ring around a snakes and ladders board. Daniel watched their heads bent over the game, hands in pockets, leaning on the back of the sofa. Suddenly someone was standing next to him.
“That’s a very good painting,” said a voice. “Where’s it from?”
“It’s Aoife’s,” Daniel said lightly, little interest in his voice. Painting was not in his nature, though he had his own tastes. “We swapped it for a tasteless modern art thing which is now in that corner over there. I prefer Aoife’s stuff, personally.”
“Your cousin painted that?” Mr Atkins, the speaker, was incredulous. “It looks like an original. I am very fond of landscape art, although I can’t paint myself. That is simply fabulous. It’s just like the lake, with the Seeberg and Scholastika in the distance.”
“It’s called ‘Achensee Sundown’. She finished it a week or two ago. She’s painting the Sonnjoch now,” Daniel said, trying to keep the pride from his voice.
“Gracious!” Mr Atkins’ eyes were fixed on the simple painting. “Did she really do this?”
“Yes. Look, her name is in this corner. ‘Aoife Mariel Thimble’. That’s my cousin.”
Mr Atkins shook his head in disbelief. “Is she aware of how much this is worth?”
“No; I don’t think she really cares,” Dan said.
“Does she have a profitable career, then, with her painting on the side?”
“Only keeping house for us. She paints a lot in her spare time. Her parents are both artists, though. They sell.”
“Does Aoife sell?”
“Not that I know of. But then I don’t know that she’s ever had any offers. Aoife doesn’t brag about her art. She hangs it all over the house back in Pentingdon, but she never points it out to visitors.”
“No.” Mr Atkins was lost in thought. “Would Aoife be willing to sell, do you think?”
“I don’t know. She doesn’t confide her thoughts to us much. Or even to Dad, really. I don’t know. You should ask her.”
Now that Dan came to think of it, Aoife always listened gladly to any of them, but she scarcely ever volunteered her own thoughts. He wondered what she was thinking all the time. Her thoughts must be pretty deep if she didn’t like to tell them. But Aoife wasn’t some common thoughtless idiot who blurted out every uppermost consideration in her fluffy little head. She needed to know things, and needed to be sure, and needed to make her own mind up independently without the interference of any other mind.
Daniel shook his head as if to clear the thoughts from it. His cousin was a very complex individual. More complex than he hoped to understand.
“How much is the painting worth?” he put forward curiously.
Mr Atkins laughed at his inquisitiveness. “By the look of it, I’d say several hundred pounds.”
Daniel’s jaw dropped.
“Don’t look so shell-shocked, son. Your cousin is a fantastic artist, and I must persuade her to sell this painting to me. It’s a masterpiece. I can imagine it above the fire at home. I only wish Ophélie could have seen it. She loved landscape art.”
Mr Atkins paused, lost in thought, deep in the past, where a pretty French girl with startling violet-coloured eyes was waiting for him – a girl who had loved landscape art so much that she had attended an auction for a dearly-coveted painting on the very morning of their wedding day, and had been late for the ceremony because the bidding went on so long. But she had won the piece, and bought it with her own savings, and it hung above Mr Atkins’ bed for the rest of his life.
Daniel knew he was thinking of his late wife. His father often dropped into reveries such as these when his wonderful wife Dymmie was mentioned. Daniel felt tears pricking at the back of his eyes as that loving face came back into his mind. Wavy auburn hair, kind hazel eyes, and the look of pure love and peace on the face of his dear dead mother.
“How did she die? Why did she die? Why did she have to die?” he thought angrily. “Why should I suffer because of something I can’t help? Why do I suffer? Oh, why did Mummy have to die?”