Aoife, looking at her uncle, saw him for perhaps the first time as a lonely man still grieving for his dead wife and struggling to care for a large family. He had always seemed so supportive to her. She had hardly realised how much he, in turn, needed support.
“Oh, Uncle!” she cried, resting a hand on his shoulder across the table. “Do you really need me? If you need me I can put off our marriage for a year or two. I’m sure Vinzent would understand. I’m still very young.”
“No,” he said without a hesitation, smiling again. “I can’t ask you to postpone your happiness. As long as you are close at hand, especially for the girls… And age doesn’t matter at all… Back to business. I need to know what you think about renting the cottages around this courtyard.”
Aoife blinked. She took her hand from his shoulder. She knew she could not do anything for her uncle in his sorrow. He was the only one who could help himself. She did not understand his grief, and she was not authorised to attempt to understand it. She and Vinzent understood one another’s heartbreak, but she could not help her uncle, and she knew it with the bleakness of indirect rejection.
She recalled her senses to the question he put before her. “I don’t see why not. It sounds a very sound idea to me. I hope it might give the children some playmates. And maybe I can make a few friends.”
“Of course.” He coughed. “Would it be alright with you if I mentioned this to Mr Atkins? I know he is looking for a house out of London. Élodie is going to university in France, but he told me the middle girl is finding it a bit difficult living with his wife’s sister sometimes. This lady, Tante Amélie, the girls call her, is an unmarried woman with too much time on her hands, and has rather outdated ideas regarding some matters. He says it would be better if the middle girl comes to him and learns more English, especially now that she will not have the elder one there with her. Mr Atkins thinks it would be for the best, even if it disrupts her education.”
“Of course I don’t mind, Dad! The children would be delighted, and so would I,” Aoife said. “Coralie gets on with both the girls, especially Blaise, and Daniel with Basilie, too. That would be perfectly acceptable. Do you know any others who are possible, or will you advertise with an estate agent?”
“I shan’t advertise if possible. I’d rather have a select community, if you see what I mean, or else leave the houses empty, and I can save money by advertising locally and amongst my various contacts. I do have a friend who has two daughters and a son who share a very small terrace near Manchester. The girls, I believe, and are about eight and twelve years old, and share a room. The boy is quite a lot older, I think.”
“That would be nice. What are their names?”
“My friend is called Paddington. Or did you mean the girls?”
“The girls, of course, Uncle.”
“One’s called Claudia – or Cassandra – no; Claudia. I don’t have a head for names, Aoife. Are you happy? Do you have any more questions, because I can hear the brigade coming down the stairs?”
“Sounds more like rolling,” Aoife chuckled. “Nothing else, Uncle Humph. If there is, I’ll let you know. Thank you. Thank you for everything.”