A Sneak Peak at Caro Fraser's Summer of Love


A Sneak Peak at Caro Fraser's Summer of Love

Summer of Love is the latest novel written by Caro Fraser. This stand-alone sequel to The Summer House Party tells the story of a group of family and friends who gather at Harry Denholm’s country house in the hot summer of 1949. Amongst the heat, memories and infatuations, a secret is revealed to Meg’s son, Max, and soon a terrible tragedy unfolds that will have consequences for them all.  
The dark days of war are over, but the family secrets they held are only just dawning…
Summer of Love is out now in Hardback and Ebook. Read below for an extract. 



The air was full of the fresh, damp scents of early spring as Meg and Dan Ranscombe turned off the road and walked up the narrow path that led to the back of Woodbourne House. They made a handsome couple – Meg, in her early thirties, was vividly pretty, with dark eyes and chestnut hair curling to her shoulders; Dan, a few years older, was by contrast fair-haired and blue-eyed, his clean-cut features marked by a faint arrogance, a remnant of youthful vanity. They walked in thoughtful silence. It was four years since they had last been to Woodbourne House, the home of Sonia Haddon, Meg’s aunt and Dan’s godmother.

‘I’m glad we took the train instead of driving,’ said Dan, breaking the quiet. ‘I have fond memories of this walk.’

They paused by a big, whitewashed stone barn standing at the foot of a sloping apple orchard.

‘Uncle Henry’s studio,’ murmured Meg. ‘I remember that summer, having to traipse down every morning with barley water and biscuits for him while he was painting.’

Sonia’s husband, Henry Haddon, had been an acclaimed artist in his day, and in pre-war times to have one’s portrait painted by him had had considerable cachet. In Britain’s post-war modernist world, his name had fallen out of fashion.

Dan stood gazing at the barn, lost in his own memories: that final day of the house party twelve years ago, when he had come down to the studio to say farewell to his host. Finding Henry Haddon, his trousers round his ankles, locked in an embrace with Madeleine, the nanny, against the wall of the studio had been absurd and shocking enough, but what had then transpired had been even worse. He could remember still the sound of the ladder crashing to the floor, and the sight of five-year-old Avril peeping over the edge of the hayloft. Presumably the shock of seeing his daughter had brought on Haddon’s heart attack. That, and unwonted sexual exertions. The moments afterwards were confused in his memory, although he recalled setting the ladder aright so that Avril could get down, then sending her running up to the house to get someone to fetch a doctor, while he uselessly attempted to revive Haddon. Madeleine, unsurprisingly, had made herself scarce. And the painting – he remembered that. A portrait of Madeleine in her yellow sundress, seated on a wicker chair, head half-turned as though listening to notes of unheard music, or the footfall of some awaited lover. Haddon had been working on it in the days running up to his death, and no doubt the intimacy forged between painter and sitter had led to that brief and ludicrously tragic affair. The falling ladder had knocked it from the easel, and he had picked it up and placed it with its face to the wall next to the other canvases. He didn’t to this day know why he had done that. Perhaps as a way of closing off and keeping secret what he had witnessed. To this day nobody but he knew about Haddon’s affair with Madeleine. Had the painting ever been discovered? No one had ever mentioned it. Perhaps it was there still, just as he had left it.

Meg glanced at his face. ‘Penny for them.’

‘Oh, nothing,’ said Dan. ‘Just thinking about that house party, when you and I first met.’

What a fateful chain of events had been set in motion in the summer of 1936. He had been a twenty-four-year-old penniless journalist, invited to spend several days at Woodbourne House with a handful of other guests. Meeting and falling in love with Meg had led to the clandestine affair they had conducted throughout the war years behind the back of her husband Paul. Its discovery had led to estrangement with much of the family. Paul, a bomber pilot, had been killed on the way back from a raid over Germany, and the possibility that his discovery of the affair might have contributed in some way, on some level, to his death, still haunted them both. They never spoke of it. Meg and Dan were married now, but the guilt of what they had done remained. Meg’s mother Helen had been trying for some time to persuade her sister, Sonia, to forgive Meg and Dan, and today’s invitation to Woodbourne House was a signal that she had at last relented.

They walked up through the orchard, and when they reached the flagged courtyard at the back of the house Meg said, ‘I’m going to the kitchen to say hello to Effie. I don’t think I can face Aunt Sonia quite yet. I’ll let you go first. Cowardly of me, I know, but I can’t help it.’ She gave him a quick smile and a kiss, and turned in the direction of the kitchen.

Dan found Sonia at the desk in her little sitting room, answering letters. She looked up as he knocked and put his head round the door.

‘There you are,’ she said.

‘Here I am.’

She rose and surveyed him, her expression sad and thoughtful. She was a tall, attractive woman in her late fifties, with a long, patrician face and an air of pre-war Bloomsbury elegance.

‘Thank you for inviting us here today,’ said Dan. ‘I know how difficult it must have been, given the way you feel about… well, everything.’

‘It wasn’t so difficult. Helen made me see how pointless my anger was. What you and Meg did, for whatever selfish reasons, is in the past. Nothing can change what happened, or bring Paul back.’

‘We didn’t mean to be selfish. We were in love.’

‘Lovers are the most selfish people on earth.’

They stood looking at one another in silence for a few seconds, then Dan said, ‘Can I… may I hug you?’

She accepted his embrace, then asked, ‘Where is Meg?’

‘She went to the kitchen to see Effie.’

’Then let’s go and find her and have lunch.’

Dan sensed that although the past might be forgiven, it would not lightly be forgotten. Conversation over lunch was tentative to begin with, but when Sonia made the surprising announcement that she was in the process of selling Woodbourne House and moving to London, reserve and awkwardness quickly fell away.

‘Oh, Aunt Sonia!’ exclaimed Meg. ‘You’ve lived here simply for ever. Won’t it be a wrench?’

‘If the truth be told, I’m quite relieved. Now we are all being taxed out of existence, the expense of a house this size is really beyond me. The heating alone costs a fortune. And I had to let most of the kitchen garden run to seed this year. We simply don’t need all those vegetables. Not like during the war, when the house was full of people.’ She sighed, her gaze fixed wistfully on some place in the past. ‘At any rate, it will be a blessing not to have to concern myself with leaky gutters and rotting window-frames. They have building managers to look after all that in my new flat.’

‘Whereabouts is it?’ asked Dan.

‘Mount Street, in Mayfair,’ replied Sonia. ‘It’s an excellent location, with the park nearby and Bond Street just around the corner, and the size is perfect – a drawing room, a dining room, and three bedrooms, so Avril and Laura will each have their own room. There’s a maid’s room, too, but I rather think I’m done with maids. It will do as a spare for visitors. The kitchen and bathroom are all newly fitted – we even have a refrigerator.’

‘What do the girls think?’ asked Meg.

‘They don’t know yet. I’ll tell them when they come home for the Easter holidays. I doubt if they’ll mind very much. Avril is always grumbling about how boring the countryside is, so I’m sure she’ll like living in London. I’m afraid Laura may be upset about having to leave her pony, but there are ways round that. I remember riding in Hyde Park as a girl. We’ll sort something out.’

‘How is Laura enjoying being at big school with Avril?’ asked Meg. ‘It’s hard to tell. Her letters home suggest all is well, but’ – Sonia sighed and put her knife and fork together – ‘there’s no use pretending that Avril won’t always resent Laura. I suppose it’s hard to share your life and your mother’s affection with someone from outside the family. I only hope she isn’t making Laura’s life difficult.’

‘As I recall from my boarding school days, the lower third and the sixth form don’t have much to do with one another,’ observed Meg, ‘so I shouldn’t worry.’

‘Perhaps it was a mistake to send Laura to Avril’s school. But I thought it would be nice for the girls to be there together, if only for a year. Something to look back on.’

Meg couldn’t imagine Avril and Laura ever looking back fondly on anything they did together. But Sonia had always had something of a blind spot where the two girls were concerned, tending to ignore the fact that her own daughter, Avril, was a difficult and moody girl, with whom she didn’t have the best of relationships, and to pretend that Laura, who wasn’t part of the family, but whose temperament and charm invited affection, received no special favouritism.

‘I always think it was quite heroic of you to take on Madeleine’s baby. Not many people would have.’

‘I have only one regret, and that is that the girls don’t have a better relationship. Maybe things will improve as they get older. Anyway, on the subject of schools, how is Max looking forward to Eton?’

Meg exchanged a glance with Dan. Max was her son from her marriage to Paul Latimer, and it was something of a sore point with her that Max’s education was entirely controlled by the Latimer family trust, set up by Paul to maintain and educate Max at schools of Paul’s dictating, until he was twenty-five and came into his inheritance. Meg had been cut out of Paul’s will almost entirely. Not that she blamed him for that. But it was hard to have Max’s life controlled from beyond the grave.

‘That’s a couple of years away, Aunt Sonia. He won’t go there till he’s thirteen.’

Effie, Sonia’s cook-cum-maid, arrived to take the plates away.

‘Thank you, Effie,’ said Sonia. She turned to Meg and Dan. ‘Coffee?’

Dan glanced at his watch. ‘As long as we don’t miss the three-thirty train. I’m off to Berlin next week, and I have a lot to do.’

‘Berlin? But it must be in a dreadful state, what with the Russians blockading everything.’

‘Precisely why Reuters are sending me.’

‘I want to go with him,’ said Meg, ‘but he won’t hear of it.’ She paused, and gave her aunt a tentative smile. ‘The fact is, I’m expecting a baby.’

‘Oh, that’s wonderful news! When is it due?’

‘October. Just think, you’ll be in London by then.’

Effie brought coffee, and Sonia and Meg discussed the exciting prospect of the new baby. At length Dan said to Meg, ‘Come on, we should be making a move. We don’t want to miss the bus to the station.’

A few rays of March sunshine were struggling through the grey clouds as they stepped outside. Meg glanced wistfully around the familiar lawns and gardens.

‘Aren’t you the tiniest bit sorry to be leaving, Aunt Sonia? It’s been such a wonderful home.’

‘Oh, I’m quite over the sentimental part – my main concern is the upheaval. So much clearing out to do.’

‘I couldn’t help wondering,’ said Dan, ‘as we came up the back path, when anyone was last in Henry’s old studio.’

‘No one’s been there since the day he died. I simply couldn’t face it myself. Such horrid associations.’ She paused. ‘Henry never kept anything of value down there. But I suppose I shall have to take a look and see if it needs clearing out.’ 

So the painting of Madeleine must still be there where he had left it. Dan wondered what effect it would have on Sonia when she saw it. Might she make the connection and realise that Henry could be the father of Madeleine’s child, whom she had brought up for the past twelve years? Somehow he doubted it.

Sonia watched Meg and Dan make their way through the orchard and past the barn, until they were out of sight. She was profoundly glad she had made her peace with them. Their mistakes lay in the past, and they had a future to look forward to now, and she could be a part of it.

Meg and Dan lived in Belgravia, in a house left to Dan by his father. It was too big for them, and somewhat run-down, but in the years since the war they had never got round to selling it and finding somewhere more suitable. The Saturday after their visit to Woodbourne House, Meg returned home from shopping to find Dan in the study sprawled on the battered green velvet sofa acquired in his Cambridge days, smoking and reading. She gently shoved his legs aside so that she could sit down next to him, and tapped his book. ‘What’s this you’re reading?’

‘A poem by W.H. Auden. A very long poem.’ He held it up so that Meg could read the title.

‘The Age Of Anxiety,’ she read aloud. ‘A Baroque Eclogue. What’s an eclogue?’

‘You may well ask. I believe it’s the name for a classical style of poem. It’s absolutely impenetrable, but then so are most of the things Harry asks me to review.’

‘Very generous of you to go on reviewing things for him, when he hardly ever pays you.’

‘Well, as he’s my oldest and dearest friend, it would seem churlish to refuse.’

‘Has he got a title for this new magazine of his?’

‘The last I heard it was going to be called Modern Critical Review. Anyway, now that he’s come into a bit of money, I expect to be paid properly for all my pieces. It’s not going to be like the old days, when he ran Ire on a shoestring from a cupboard in Soho.’

‘Oh yes, the great inheritance. So, just how rich was this great-uncle of his?’

‘Rich enough to allow Harry to buy some country pile in Kent, apparently. He telephoned to tell me about it half an hour ago. He’s very excited. Says it’s a bit dilapidated, but he’s enjoying renovating it.’

‘Harry having money – it’s quite a strange notion.’

‘I know. He’s invited us down to see the place. I thought we could drive down on Monday. I’m off to Berlin on Tuesday, so we won’t get another chance for ages.’

‘Lovely. I’ll go and check we’ve got enough petrol coupons.’

On Monday they drove to Kent to see Harry’s new house.

‘I wonder if this is going to be one of Harry’s sudden enthusiasms that he’ll tire of once the novelty has worn off,’ mused Meg, frowning at the map in her hand.

‘I doubt it,’ replied Dan. ‘Taking on a property is a big thing. I don’t know how much he’s inherited, but if he’s spending money on the place he’ll see it through. Besides, I know he’s hungry for some kind of stability. His world rather fell apart when he lost Laurence, and he’s been trying to rebuild it ever since.’

‘Who’s Laurence? I’ve never heard Harry mention him.’

‘He was before your time. He was Harry’s lover, much younger than Harry. When he went to fight in Spain Harry went through hell, terrified he wouldn’t come back. He survived, though. Then when the war came, Harry wanted Laurence to get out of conscription – which he could have, of course. They both could have, if they’d been prepared to be classed as suffering from sexual perversion.’ Dan smiled. ‘Harry always maintained he revelled rather than suffered. But neither of them wanted to take that way out. Laurence was killed in Burma, just before the war ended, and Harry was heartbroken. I think perhaps buying this place and making it a proper home is his way of trying to find some peace of mind.’

‘How sad. Poor Harry.’ Meg glanced out of the window. ‘That was a sign for Adisham, so I think we’ve come too far. The map says the turning is before that. Honestly, this place is like a rabbit warren.’

Dan sighed and turned the car around in a gateway. ‘I’ll stop talking so that you can pay attention to the map.’

Fifteen minutes later they found the house, down a narrow road overhung with trees just coming into leaf. A faded wooden sign bearing the word ‘Chalcombe’ was attached to the pillar of a stone gateway, whose rusted gates were thrown back against tangles of nettles. Dan turned the car up a curving driveway bordered by sprawling shrubs. The house, when it came into view, was compact, built of pinkish-grey brick, and consisted of two storeys, with dormer attic windows in the slate roof adding a third level. Though not dilapidated, it had an unmistakable air of desolation. The grounds were overgrown, and among the tangle of nettles and brambles the remnants of a garden could be discerned, with a stone urn at the centre of what had once been a lawn. A semicircle of trees framed both the house and garden.

As they got out of the car, Dan and Meg could hear the sound of hammering. The front door stood open, and they stepped inside into a stone-flagged central hallway, with doors leading to adjoining rooms, and a staircase curving up to the next floor. Through the doorways they could see evidence of neglect, patches of crumbling plaster, stained ceilings and dusty floors. A passageway led from the hall to back of the house, from where the hammering was coming, and Dan and Meg ventured down this, emerging into a large, light room, at the end of which workmen were working on what appeared to be the construction of a conservatory. Harry, who was standing with a tweed-suited man poring over plans spread out on a trestle table, greeted them. He was a tall, barrel-chested bear of a man, with thick, dark hair, a short beard, and a rich, drawling voice. He was a notorious member of London’s homosexual fraternity, and in the early days of their friendship Dan had suspected Harry nursed hopes of something less platonic, but after twelve years the relationship had found a satisfactory level of mutual fondness. Meg, too, had come to know and love Harry, although she hoped that his latest stroke of good fortune, the inheritance from his great-uncle, would put an end to his regular applications to Dan for loans of a few pounds ‘to see him through’.

Harry introduced them to his builder, then said, ‘Come, I’ll give you a grand tour. This’ – he gestured around the room – ‘is a sort of main reception room, and I’m adding a conservatory at the end. Somewhere light and airy with big doors giving on to the garden so that one can eat breakfast outside in summer.’

He showed them around the house, enthusiastically conjuring from the neglected spaces visions of beautiful rooms, then led them outside and explained his plans for the restoration of the garden. While Harry and Dan wandered to the edges of the garden for a smoke, Meg sat down on a stone bench and gazed around. She recognised the ring of trees encircling the garden as mulberries. There had been a mulberry tree outside the back door of Hazelhurst, the home she and Paul had shared after their marriage, when they were still happy – before the war, before Dan and all that had ensued. She sighed, shaking off the memories. She could see why Harry had fallen in love with Chalcombe. Nestling in its little valley, it possessed a wonderful tranquillity. It was rather mournful in its present state of neglect, but it wasn’t hard to imagine it coming alive, the garden tamed, the rooms bright and tastefully furnished, filled with life. She felt she knew what Harry wanted to bring about, the kind of home he wanted it to be.

Dan and Harry strolled back, and Harry pointed out a dilapidated barn that stood to one side of the house.

‘As far as I can tell, someone used it for hatching pheasants. I’m thinking of knocking it down and putting a hothouse there. It would be amusing to cultivate something exotic, like orchids, don’t you think?’

‘You sound like you’re going to be a tremendous man of leisure,’ said Meg. ‘What about the magazine?’

‘Oh, I’ll run it in London. I don’t intend to spend all my time down here. Besides, once Chalcombe has been restored to its former glory I’ll have blown most of Great-Uncle Cedric’s money. I still need to earn a crust. Can’t imagine not working, really.’

‘I never had you down as a man who hankered after a country retreat,’ said Dan, ‘but I have to say it’s a topping place.’

‘I want you and Meg to promise you’ll come and stay this summer. I’m determined it will be utterly perfect by then.’

‘We promise.’

‘Splendid! Now, let’s jump in the motor and see if we can find a pub for a spot of lunch.’