LONDON, JUNE 1981
JESSE MARLEY adopts a smile like it’s an orphan. Looked at from the outside, there’s confidence in that long stride as she pushes on through waves and flurries of strangers, anonymous in that happy crush.
In six weeks Prince Charles and Lady Diana will marry, and London is already full and swelling as tides of people glut the streets, the hotels, the theaters, and the pubs. Jesse might be one of them—just another tourist waiting for the wedding, loving all the excitement. But she’s not.
She’s dressed carefully today. There’s the skirt—summery, cut on the bias, floral—and a voile shirt with a Peter Pan collar. A cute denim jacket is slung over the top, and flat pink shoes tone with the skirt. Respectable. Feminine. A nice change, some would say, but are they good enough, are her clothes right?
And, yes, she’s overthinking again, but Jesse can’t escape the feeling that they might be looking for her, just as she’s looking for them. She’s tried not to think that thought ever since she arrived in this sweaty city three days ago; the idea that the two people she wants to meet most in all the world could be in London, could, actually, be among those on this footpath today, is glorious. And strange.
Would it really be so weird to meet by chance? Everything else in these last weeks has been on the far side of odd—why not this too?
Play the game. Just pretend.
So Jesse stops, and the mass of hurrying people divides around her, as if she’s an island in a river. Eyes half closed, she filters faces looking for clues.
That tall woman in the blazer with the shoulder pads? She’s got a good face and the age is right. The man striding beside her is well dressed too. If she’s her, maybe that’s him.
A surge of people sweeps the couple past. They stare at Jesse because she’s smiling at them, but there’s no flicker of recognition—she’s just a face in this place of far too many faces.
Jesse’s disappointed, but she isn’t crushed. There’d be recognition on both sides, so they can’t be the ones.
Ah, London. Too many cars, too many people—scrums marching in lockstep push her to the curb too often—and there’s the smog. She’d thought Sydney was bad, but this? The air has substance.
Jesse doesn’t have a handkerchief, so she wipes sweat from her face with one hand as a woman pushes past. She gets it when the stranger looks through her. She’s been judged. It’s not just what she wears or how she walks; so often it’s as soon as she opens her mouth and they hear the accent.
“Hah!” She hadn’t meant to shout.
Pin-striped, bowler-hatted, a man stares.
A bowler? Things like that belong in black-and-white movies. But Jesse so longs to stop him and say, “It’s okay. I don’t bite. I’m lost, you see, and . . .” Lost? In many more ways than one.
Jesse clutches the strap of her shoulder bag as if it’s a rope thrown to the drowning, something that can save her from herself. Maybe that’s the literal truth, because inside the bag is the envelope. She wants to open it, but to think she soon will makes her heart fill her chest.
Washed by fear, strafed by yearning, Jesse ignores the traffic; she just wants to get to the other side of the road.
Good, though, that the guy on the Norton was just idling past. Well, almost good, because that instant the motorcycle sweeps her away doesn’t actually hurt. Not then.
Heads swivel. Someone screams. Three strangers, two men, one girl, rush to help. Even the guy who’s knocked her down gets up and limps over, leaving all that vintage machinery splayed on the road without a glance.
This is all surreal.
Swatting kind hands away, Jesse levers to her knees, stands, and wobbles as she smooths her skirt,
“No, I’m fine. Really. This?” Her pretty blouse is a bit ripped at the front. Well, a lot ripped. She pulls the jacket closed, but moving her right arm hurts. “No, really, it’s nothing. Thanks. Truthfully, all’s well. I just didn’t see.”
The bag! Panicked, she tries to find it. Gutter. Footpath. “My shoulder bag? Has anyone seen my—”
The guy who took her down looks even more embarrassed. He almost points, but clears his throat instead.
There it is, still on the other shoulder. “I just need to be—that is . . .” Somewhere, anywhere, out of this.
Jesse takes the piece of paper he offers. The guy’s scribbled an address and his name on the back of, what? A butcher’s bill.
“George, is it? Thanks. I mean, that is, you’re very kind. It was my fault.” She can feel her face hitch up in a grin.
That confuses the poor man, but Jesse doesn’t offer him her name. And she doesn’t have an address; just the hostel, and she’s only staying there for one more night.
“That’s my bus.” It isn’t, but it’s stopping and at least she knows the name on the front: Smithfield. Jesse half runs, to the extent she can. And lurches up the steps as the front door sighs open.
“Where’s your ticket, love?” The black driver is a patient man but it’s lunchtime.
Her right shoulder hurts now, as well as her arm, so Jesse scrabbles with her left hand in the bag. “It’s here somewhere.” She’s so close to crying when she hands it over.
The man clips her pass, and Jesse stumbles along the deck as the bus takes off. There’s an empty seat by the back door and, wincing, she swings herself into it, left hand on the pole.
Where is she going, really?
Away. That’s all. Away from this place to another one.
But the old bus bumps over a broken road near Smithfield Market, more pothole and rut than street, and Jesse pings the bell. Enough!
She stands alone among another crowd as the bus growls away from the curb.
And starts to walk. There’s a hospital around here; maybe she should get her arm checked. Or, not so much her arm but her shoulder, though it’ll cost money she doesn’t have.
No. Can’t be done.
There’s a secret in this busy street, and Jesse finds it though she doesn’t know she’s looking. Maybe the entrance is deliberately hard to spot and that’s why she almost walks past. Almost. But she stops when she sees the sign to St. Bartholomew the Great. A garden is on the other side of an open, ancient door, a place of green leaves and soft light. And there’s an empty bench to sit on. Maybe she’ll just catch her breath, only for a moment.
Nearly a thousand years old, this church: that’s what the sign says. That’s around how old Jesse feels. Her head’s aching and her right shoulder—well, it doesn’t feel much like a shoulder. It feels like a thing that’s all about misery.
Like an old woman, she walks the path between the graves, makes it to the seat, and sits. She’s not Zen enough to ignore her shoulder; it hit the ground first and the throb in the joint is a half-heard drum.
Can she will the pain away? She tries.
Ah. Of course. The inner voice.
But Jesse doesn’t want to face whatever is brewing between her ears. Too much facing of things lately. Way too much.
She shrugs. And almost screams. In that giddy moment, vomit fills her mouth.
Breathe deep! Deeper. Head down. Go on.
As the trees, at last, regain their proper places in the sky, Jesse sighs. Sun is coming from somewhere.
But she can’t allow herself to rest.
Very, very carefully, she opens her bag with the good arm and finds it. She stares at the thing in her hand. It doesn’t look like a bomb. It looks innocent. Public-service beige, her name on the front: Jesse Marley. It’s the one she’s used to. Maybe that’s good.
Is it hard to open an envelope? Sometimes. Today it’s impossible.
Jesse puts it back in the bag.
Wedged into a corner of the cloisters is a café. The Brits would call it a tearoom, wouldn’t they? So, yes, let there be . . .
“Tea?” The girl behind the counter has a pleasant face. Not especially pretty—in fact, not pretty at all—but her skin is beautiful, clear, bright, and soft. Only the English or the Irish seem to win the skin lottery. All that water in the air? Must be.
But another asset surrounds that plain face: tawny hair that swings in a mass when the girl moves her head.
“Can you make an espresso?” Jesse smiles without hope.
Those sincerely apologetic eyes. “I’m so awfully sorry, we only do instant.”
What is this place? Does no one know how to make coffee in London? It’s 1981! Jesse doesn’t let it show; she shakes her head politely. “Tea’s fine. Really.” She doesn’t ask what it is. There’s no point. Tea’s tea in England.
“Help yourself to a table. Would you like something to eat?” She has a name badge, this gracious waitress: ALICIA.
Not wanting to stare, Jesse looks away.
Alicia. So English. Such an educated voice too. A class marker, that voice. This girl might be working in a café, but she comes from somewhere, went to a “good” school. Plainly.
“Is that an Eccles cake?”
Don’t buy it.
But Alicia provides permission—encouragement, even. “I’ll bring it with the tea. Everyone needs a little treat.” Her smile matches the skin. Flawless teeth decorate her mouth, and her eyes twinkle nicely. Very un-English.
Jesse warms to Alicia. She might be all class, but she’s also endearing. Does endearing get you further than good legs? Probably not. Maybe. But you’d have to work harder.
Jesse sighs. Once, she’d been so sure of herself, so gregarious. Confident, even. Now all she wants is a table on her own. And she’d like to be invisible while she licks her wounds—the psychic ones—and reads the letter.
A table at the far end of the café has a view of the garden. Jesse sits with great care, her back to the few customers, but it’s hard to take the bag off her shoulder. Somehow she eases out of the jacket too. She’s feeling hot.
Alicia follows her. She puts a small china teapot on the table, a matching cup and saucer, and what might possibly be a silver jug of milk—and even a strainer in its own little bowl. Last, the plate with the treat. Tea and cakes. The British gift to civilization. “It looks very nice.”
The girl seems pleased. “Let me know if I can get you anything else. It’s no trouble.” One quick glance from the waitress as she goes back to the counter lets Jesse know her disheveled appearance has been noted. Noted, but perhaps not judged. Not that kind of a girl, Alicia, not toffee-nosed; in fact, she looks kind, full stop.
Jesse stares down at her cup. She sips. Fragrant and really hot. Really delicious as well. And the Eccles cake. As promised, sensational. Currants, sugar, butter. Comprehensive sin. But God is just beyond the cloister, so that’s all right.
Jesse closes her eyes to savor the tastes.
So, feeling better?
Jesse jumps. “Sorry?”
The waitress is beside her. “Pardon?” She’s mopping crumbs that somehow leapt off the plate.
“Did you say something?” Jesse’s confused.
The girl smiles. “No. Would you like anything else?” She nods at the empty plate.
“A new life would be good.” Jesse would grin, but her face is hurting. And her head.
“You’ve come to the right place, then.” A final swipe and that lovely smile.
“What?” Jesse stares.
Alicia nods. “I’d talk to Rahere. He’s a very good listener.” The girl tilts her head toward the entrance to the church.
Jesse smiles uncertainly. “Oh. Well, might go and introduce myself.”
“He’s always there, day and night. You’ll find him by the altar.”
“Rahere. Is that a first name?”
“Yes. Well, first and last together.” The waitress picks up the tray. “Finished?”
As Jesse’s fingers dance on the tabletop—nerves—she mentally counts through the meager stock of coins and notes in her wallet. She’s still got to pay for the hostel, cheap as it is, and if she’s going north, she’ll use up what’s left; maybe she’ll get a temp job somewhere to cover costs. Absolutely, definitely, she shouldn’t have had the cake. “How much do I owe you?”
“One pound and seventy-five pence.”
Jesse scrapes back her chair and goes to the counter. “Is Rahere the pastor here—the, um, vicar?”
Alicia seems less plain with each smile. “No. He’s the founder of the church. And the hospital.”
Awkwardly, Jesse counts the coins with her left hand. “The founder?” She picks up a brochure on the counter. “But the church is over nine hundred years old, right?”
“It’s his tomb you want.” Alicia makes little shooing motions.
Jesse doesn’t even blink. Advice from the dead, recommended by a stranger. That fits.
The great church is empty. A tiered rack for votive candles is in a side chapel. It might be blasphemous if you no longer believe, but Jesse puts ten pence in the tin and lights a taper anyway.
The rap of her heels disturbs the hush as she looks for Rahere’s tomb. It lies in a wall niche, and the face and hands of his effigy are glazed a tanned pink while his head rests on a red pillow with gold tassels. His robe, so crisply carved, is shiny black. He has company too—a crowned angel holds up a heraldic shield at his feet.
Favoring her damaged shoulder, Jesse sits in a chair across from the tomb and scans the brochure. It says here you were known to be cheerful, Rahere. That you liked helping people. She stares at the effigy. So, can I ask you for that—just to be cheerful while I sort this mess out? I don’t want to be bitter. I don’t want to be angry. I just want to know.
Jesse’s eyes fill. She sniffs; manages to rub one eye and then the other. As if she’s got something stuck.
She’s avoided grief for some time now, pushed it down, closed the lid on that box and locked it up. Now, like an idiot, she’s allowed misery to jump out and sock her right in the eye.
There’s only one thing to do; she knows it. Reaching into her bag, she takes the envelope out, rips the top, and unfolds the birth certificate.
Child: female. Name: Jesse Mary. Date of Birth: 1st August 1956.
She stares at Rahere. Does this feel like betrayal to you? It does to me. Her birthday’s always been celebrated on October 3.
Jesse keeps reading. Place of Birth: Jedburgh, Berwickshire.
Mother’s Name: Eva Green.
Date of Birth: 13th March 1940.
Something hits in Jesse’s chest, hard as a fist.
In that moment she’s certain she will choke. But. She doesn’t.
There’s a word, Informant, with a signature beside it.
Jesse makes herself look at it. Anything to avoid the other information. Peering, she can see a woman’s name—it’s hard to read—and there’s an abbreviation at the front of it: Sr. Her finger traces the name. Mary Joseph. And beside the last name—Magdalene?—there’s a cross inscribed.
At least the address is clear: Holly House, Priorsgate, Jedburgh, Berwickshire, Scotland.
Jesse stares. She’s Scottish? She’s been told she was born in Durham.
Date of registration: 23rd October 1956.
In Sydney, when she went to apply for her passport, that registration date was the first clue that something was wrong. She’d handed over what she thought was her birth certificate, the one she’d found in her mother’s—no, her adoptive mother’s—desk in their house in Crows Nest, and they’d queried the date her birth had been registered; turned out, October 1956 was months after she’d actually been born, according to British records. That happened, sometimes, in cases of informal adoption between family members. It was a way of fudging the actual date of birth.
Conclusion? She’d handed over a falsified birth certificate.
The irony was, Jesse was getting her first adult passport as a surprise for her parents. A nice one. She’d saved for two years after university earning crap money and working two jobs—typing for a solicitor during the day, cleaning at night—because she so, so wanted to go to England in the summer and see the place she was born for real. And then Charles and Di got engaged.
Her friends all laughed, but Jesse didn’t care. She just wanted to stand on a London street and see them pass by. Be a part of living history, part of their fairy tale—the prince and his virgin bride.
Her parents had never been keen on Jesse’s traveling by herself, and she thought she’d understood the reason—a girl, all alone, out in the big world. So she’d meant to get her passport and say to Janet and Malcolm, “Come with me! Let’s all go home together and be there for the wedding. My treat.”
But there’d been no ticket for her mum and dad. Because they weren’t her mum and dad.
In Sydney, the woman Jesse called Mum had slammed her bedroom door and cried all day behind it when Jesse even tried to ask that loaded question: Who am I?
Malcolm, her father, shook his head when she trapped him in the kitchen. “I knew this day would come. I warned your mother so.”
And he’d walked out of the house. Jesse knew he’d gone to the pub; a nearly silent man, he always went there when her mum asked too much of him. Which was often, in his terms.
When she was past teenage sulking, Jesse had wondered sometimes if her parents’ marriage was actually happy. They organized their lives in the length of the pauses between the careful words they spoke to each other, and in what was not said in Jesse’s hearing. After she was about nine years old, Jesse knew that something was being managed between the two—between all three of them—in that quiet house. And she’d not understood what it was.
Now she does.
And here it is. Her real birth certificate, picked up fresh today on this far side of the world. The actual object. The thing that proves who she is. A bastard child. Jesse stares at the paper in her hand. It feels as if she can see right through to the other side, as if her eyes were scalpels slicing truth to strips of nothing.
She touches the letters on the page.
This is her mother’s name. Her actual mother. Eva Green.
Why did you give me away, Mum?
That does it. Tears drip, and when Jesse bends her head, they’re a torrent she can’t stop.
She tries to stifle the sound but she can’t bear this. The pain. All kinds of pain.
It’s a while before she wipes her face one-handed. Stand up. Come on. Sitting here will solve nothing.
Cruel, but fair. “You’re right.”
Holding to the back of the chair in front, Jesse stands. She’s done sniveling, she’s done feeling sorry for herself, and she’ll ignore the shoulder too. But she chews her bottom lip. That’s a habit when she worries.
Is it something you do, Mum?
Maybe she’ll skip the hospital, go to a pharmacist and get a painkiller. Then she’ll go back to the hostel and sleep; tomorrow will be better. She’ll make it better because she’ll find a library and scour what they have about Jedburgh. And libraries have telephone books. She can look up everyone called Green in Scotland. And she’ll ring them all.
That’s a decision. And a plan.
“There you are.”
Jesse has her hand on the door to the outer porch of St. Bartholomew.
“You left this?” The waitress holds out Jesse’s jacket. “Too pretty to lose, but I didn’t want to disturb you in the church.” Alicia smiles warmly.
“Thanks.” Half turned away, Jesse’s hiding her face. But she fumbles the handover and her bag drops to the floor. Out spill far too many things, including the birth certificate.
“Let me.” The waitress bobs down. Jesse drops too, just as Alicia stands. Their skulls connect.
Jesse’s knocked back on her shoulder as she falls. She can’t breathe and the vault reels above her head.
“What a day you’re having.” The other girl reaches out a hand.
Sobbing a breath, Jesse takes it. But she can’t control her face, and she can’t stand.
“Up you come.” Alicia, this surprising girl, helps Jesse to her feet. Alicia’s touch is gentle but her arms are strong. “I think you need to rest for a while.”
“I couldn’t, really. I have to—that is . . .”
There’s a door marked STAFF ONLY, and it’s easily opened. Beyond is a room filled with mismatched furniture, but there’s a couch. Alicia fluffs a cushion, places it invitingly. “It’s quite comfortable. Why not sleep for a little while?”
Jesse stutters, “N-no. That is, I do need to go. You’ve been so kind and . . .” But she sits anyway. She can’t fall down again. Three times in one morning? Too much.
“Put your feet up.” Alicia tucks an old picnic rug around Jesse’s legs.
Jesse wants to reply, wants to say thank you, but the rug does it. She just can’t speak.
Pressing a box of tissues into the girl’s hand, Alicia opens the door soundlessly as she leaves.
Jesse’s alone. She cries until her eyes swell shut, head ringing like a bell.
Jesse shifts in her sleep, twitches and sighs. Her eyes open. She struggles to sit up. Pain bites her shoulder like a dog. She screams out, “Christ!” Shaking, she tries to look at the watch on her right wrist. Past one o’clock!
Jesse fumbles the rug off. She stands. Too fast. Feeling sick, she grasps at a table as Alicia opens the door.
“Got it.” The waitress catches the lamp before it hits the floor. Somewhere, through the open door, people sing Gregorian plainchant. Calm as a distant sea.
Jesse mutters, “What are you, patron saint of people who fall over?” She’s trying to keep it light.
“That would be the social worker. Comes Mondays and Wednesdays.” Alicia picks up the rug and shakes it out, folds it in three. And again. A neat shape. “I heard you stir.”
Where “stirring” is blasphemy. In a church. “Sorry to have been a nuisance.” Jesse picks up her jacket as she tries to flex her shoulder. Gasps.
Sweating, Jesse sort of nods. Her head doesn’t want to help. It’s blazing in there; red, black, white—pain of many colors given form.
“Um, a friend of mine sings in the choir here.” Alicia gestures through the door. “They practice at lunchtime. He’s a doctor at Barts and . . .”
“Please don’t think me rude, Alicia, but I do really have to go. I feel much better. Honestly.” Jesse tries not to flinch as she picks up her bag. “Must do this again sometime.” She makes it to the door. Forgetting, she pushes it open. Her right hand.
Did someone just remove a hunk of bone? Pain explodes and Jesse cannons into the doorjamb, slides to the floor. Four, today. A record.
“Alicia?” A man’s voice. Legs in the doorway, knees level with Jesse’s nose. A startled pause. “Hello. No. Stay put. Don’t try to get up.”
She knows she can’t move, not now, but Jesse seems to see the voice that comes out of the man’s face as it looms closer to hers. The sound distorts, slows down, as her eyes drift closed because she’s very, very tired.
“Who is she?”
“I don’t know.”
A rustle. Jesse hears breathing close by. A large hand covers her forehead completely. Feels cool.
“Can you tell me your name?” The male voice, speaking each word really, really slowly.
She manages, “Jesse.” It’s thick-sounding. What’s her mouth doing?
“I think you might be concussed, Jesse.”
She winches her eyes open—who knew eyelids weighed so much?—and murmurs, “Okay.”
He’s smiling at her. Faint, but genuine. So’s Alicia.
Jesse tries to sit up. That doesn’t go well.
“We need to get you to the hospital.” He’s kneeling beside her. Quite close. Red hair. No. Chestnut. Pale eyes—water-green, water-blue. That English skin. Looks good, even on a man.
A deep breath. If she talks on the out, the pain isn’t as bad. “Don’t have insurance.” She’d shrug if she could. Her eyelids droop.
Jesse hears two voices. Him. Her. Him again. Then another rustle as Alicia squats down.
Jesse knows Alicia’s smell now. Soap from a morning bath—wouldn’t be a shower—and clean hair.
“Jesse, you don’t have to pay.”
Then him. “You’ll be admitted into emergency. I think you need to be.”
Magic words, You don’t have to pay.
Jesse surrenders to the dark.
Jesse Marley calls herself a realist; she’s all about the here and now. But in the month before Charles and Diana’s wedding in 1981 all her certainties are blown aside by events she cannot control. First she finds out she’s adopted. Then she’s run down by a motor bike. In a London hospital, unable to speak, she must use her left hand to write. But Jesse’s right-handed. And as if her fingers have a will of their own, she begins to draw places she’s never been, people from another time—a castle, a man in armor. And a woman’s face.
Rory Brandon, Jesse’s neurologist, is intrigued. Maybe his patient’s head trauma has brought out latent abilities. But wait. He knows the castle. He’s been there.
So begins an extraordinary journey across borders and beyond time, a chase that takes Jesse to Hundredfield, a Scottish stronghold built a thousand years ago by a brutal Norman warlord. What’s more, Jesse Marley holds the key to the castle’s secret and its sacred history. And Hundredfield, with its grim Keep, will help Jesse find her true lineage. But what does the legend of the Lady of the Forest have to do with her? That’s the question at the heart of Wild Wood. There are no accidents. There is only fate.