The Secret by Jennifer Wells
A tightly woven story full of secrets and lies with a breathtaking finale.
London 1920 – Troubled young dancer, Lily, is invited to remote Elmridge House, home of the wealthy theatre benefactor Dr Cuthbertson to escape her troubled past. An isolated guest room and a surprise pregnancy leave her longing to return to the stage and her London life. She soon discovers that Elmridge House is not all that it seems – the house holds secrets which make it difficult for her to leave.
Missensham 1942 – Young nurse Ivy Watts is called out to a patient at Elmridge House, home of the aloof Mrs Cuthbertson and reclusive Dr Cuthbertson. Ivy is entranced by the opulence of the house and its glamorous past, but when she tells her mother about Mrs Cuthbertson, her mother becomes fearful and forbids her from returning to the house. What secrets does Elmridge House hold? And why does Lily’s mother live in fear of the mysterious Mrs Cuthbertson?
I have previously read and reviewed The Murderess by Jennifer Wells, which I found to be perfect for a Sunday afternoons reading. With The Secret, I personally think the author has really stepped up her game, in carving out her name within the saga genre.
I was absolutely gripped throughout and found both historical era’s to be fascinating. From the 1920s ballet scene, to the district nursing in a humble village in the 1940s.
The author has managed to create drama that lures you to both timeframes.
The novel opens in 1943, with Ivy living in fear but from what or whom we are not sure. Then the novel jumps back to September 1942 and begins to tell the tale of what lead to Ivy’s fear. We learn of her first acquaintance with Mrs Cuthbertson!
Ivy is a local nurse, but she works specifically within the area of adoption and often in the upper most secrecy, given the era. I got the impression Ivy’s heart was always in the right place. She just simply never had enough life experience to know any different. Ivy has grown up in poverty and taking care of her ailing mother, who has suffered childhood polio. They scrape by with the help of their good friend Sadie. The midwife that also brought Ivy into the world.
Mrs Cuthbertson comes across at first as a cantankerous old battle axe. Especially, when she first meets Ivy demanding un-prescribed medication for her son. Why does she want the medication? And what is it that made her so set in her horrid ways?
‘There was something not right with her mind’
Ivy makes friends with fellow nurse Bridget, whom is brash and gossipy. Also quiet local assistant Violet. The three form the team at the Missensham Cottage Hospital. But it is when Ivy begins snooping into Mrs Cuthbertson’s need for medication, that she uncovers a world of secrets that will shake her to the core…
Past secrets come to life and we uncover a wealth of knowledge about Ivy and everyone she knows. It is a clash of culture, class structure and life choices made, that brings all the characters together in their shared past deeds.
I love that women’s issues lay at the heart of the story. The dual timeline of 1920s/1940s works exceptionally well, given that these era’s generated so much change for women of the future. There is a shocking showdown at the end and one I NEVER saw coming at all! With extra side note ‘THAT LAST PAGE!!!!‘ 5* Genius
I thought nothing more of Mrs Cuthbertson for almost a week. It turned out that she was Bridget’s problem and I was glad of it. Even when I walked in on Bridget fumbling through the medicine cabinet, her hands full and her face guilty, I said nothing and turned on my heel. Over the week, however, I did notice some changes in Bridget; she had a new coat from Partridge’s, had lightened her hair from its original chestnut to a shade that was almost blonde, and when I borrowed one of her textbooks, I found six new pound notes which sprang into tight curls when I opened the pages.
But Bridget’s luck did not last and she was called back to her family home in Fulham on Friday morning as an unexploded bomb had been found at the back of her parents’ garden, leaving them shocked and in need of their daughter. It was customary for a nurse to have twenty-four hours off for a family emergency and I wondered how I would cope without Bridget, but between us, Violet and I managed to tend to all the patients, changing dressings and administering medicines as if we had been doing it for years.
It was not until I came off shift on Sunday morning that I felt I could really relax. I left the hospital and went straight to the nurses’ house, putting the kettle on before slumping down in the armchair by the stove without even changing out of my uniform. An hour had passed since Bridget had called the main hospital from a telephone box outside Parsons Green tube station with the news that she was on her way back to Missensham and, although she missed the doctor’s rounds, I was relieved to know that she was returning.
When the phone in the hallway rang, I answered, expecting Violet’s voice on the hospital line with a request for help on the ward or a notification about more patients transferring in from London. But when I took the call, I knew instantly that it was not Violet.
‘Nurse, are you there?’ Despite the crackle on the line, the woman’s voice was unmistakable and as I heard the words, I could imagine them on the lips of the night visitor, the woman who had sat opposite me at the kitchen table and demanded medicine that had not been prescribed.
I glanced at the clock, the hand clicking on to the hour as I did so. It was ten o’clock. This was the call that Bridget usually took from the woman known in the book as Mrs Cuthbertson and as she spoke her name, I remembered how I had heard it on Bridget’s lips exactly one week ago when she had stood in the hallway and answered the telephone just as I was now. As I had suspected, the woman who had visited me in the kitchen and the woman Bridget listed in the book were the same.
‘With whom am I speaking?’ she said, but the words had a tone to them which made me unsure whether she wanted an answer or just to know that someone was listening and ready to take orders.
‘This is Nurse Watts at the Missensham Cottage Hospital Nurses’ House,’ I said, but my greeting seemed to be a detail that did not matter to her.
‘I need someone up at Elmridge House today,’ she said. ‘As soon as you can, for I must attend a church service and my son cannot be left alone for long.’
Her voice was sharp and somehow I felt as if I was being scolded for breaking an engagement I did not know I had agreed to. I took a deep breath. ‘I am afraid that there are no nurses working at this time,’ I said. ‘If you have a medical emergency, I can telephone a doctor or ambulance for you, but if you require a routine visit from a nurse, you may telephone Dr Crawford at the surgery on the green and he can get you added to the rounds of the district nurse…’ but my last words were lost under her own as if they did not matter.
‘I cannot wait for the district nurse,’ she said. ‘This is a private appointment and I will pay you directly. I understood that a nurse would be free from duties at this time. I assume you are not on duty as you have answered this number.’
‘Well, I…’ I glanced at the clock again, but it told me only that it was a few minutes past the hour and not what time Bridget would arrive back. ‘All right,’ I said, reluctant to let down Bridget’s patient. ‘A nurse can come out to you this morning, but it will not be Nurse Bradshaw, for she has been called away unexpectedly. It will be me, Nurse Watts, and I—’
‘I shall need to leave Elmridge House on the half hour,’ she said, ‘so be prompt. It is on the Oxworth Road. I need you at half past ten, it will only take you half an hour, so you have sufficient notice, and don’t come smelling like a brothel this time.’
‘Please,’ I said. ‘I am not the nurse who—’
‘Oh, and be sure to bring the medicine.’
‘Which medicine?’ I said. ‘For I cannot bring anything that has not been prescribed by—’
But the line was already dead.
I put the receiver down and stared at my reflection in the mirror above the telephone table. I took off my cap and smoothed my hair back into a bun, then I removed my apron and belt, leaving just my blue dress. We were forbidden from wearing our uniform off duty, but the plain blue dress was the only thing I could imagine a private nurse wearing and I remembered how I had seen Bridget leave the nurses’ house without her cap and apron the previous Sunday. I sat on the floor next to my nursing bag. I checked the contents – everything was clean and replenished, but it was just the usual array of metal instruments, tubing and jars, and I did not know what else to take. Then I remembered the little bottle of Luminal and the caller’s insistence that I bring ‘the medicine’. Maybe now she had a prescription to show me – I would take some just to be sure.
I ran across the lawn and through the trees to the back of the hospital, passing a startled Violet as I barged through the back door. In the sluice room I found the key to the medicine cabinet under the kidney bowl and rummaged for the little glass bottle with the blue label among the packets and jars. I found the Luminal near the back. There were a few bottles and I fancied that one would not be missed and thought that I could always sign it out later if Mrs Cuthbertson did have a prescription to show me after all. Then I ran back to the nurses’ house to collect my bag and burst in through the kitchen door.
A girl perched on the chair by the fire. She was barely bigger than a child and wore a floral print pinafore and a cardigan which seemed two sizes too big for her. By her feet was an old-fashioned wicker basket lined with straw and as many real eggs as I would usually see in a whole month.
Her face was not one that I had seen before and something about her made me think of an evacuee, although since the bombs had started to fall on the outskirts of London, Missensham was no longer considered a safe area and most evacuees had returned, which made me wonder if she had anywhere left to call home.
‘Can I help you?’ I asked impatiently. ‘For I must go out to a patient.’
‘I heard that you can do things for ladies in trouble,’ she said in a voice with more depth than I expected and I realised her a woman, but only just.
‘Oh!’ I said. ‘Yes, of course,’ but could manage nothing more. To see such a girl sat where I had seen so many others was a shock to me. I was more used to dealing with middle aged women who could not afford another mouth to feed, farmers’ wives fearing they had no strength left to carry another and women who were having flings with soldiers. That someone like her would come to me asking for help was something that I could not quite understand. Somehow she was in the same situation as these women, yet she was so unlike them.
‘Is this not the right place?’ she said. ‘For I heard that—’
‘Yes, yes,’ I said quickly. ‘Yes, this is the place, but surely it can’t be for yourself…’
She nodded. ‘There was this gentleman,’ she said, ‘and now I am late.’
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