This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental.
Published by HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd 1 London Bridge Street London SE1 9GF
First published in Great Britain by HarperCollinsPublishers 2005
Copyright © Josephine Cox 2005
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Ebook Edition © APRIL 2012 ISBN: 9780007373130 Version: 2017-08-16
For my darling Ken, as ever
January, 1952 The Woman
HE HAD SEEN them twice before, and each time his curiosity was aroused. Arm-in-arm, the two women would come softly into the churchyard, place their flowers, and linger awhile before leaving in the same discreet manner in which they had arrived.
Today, as his bumbling black Labrador Chuck tugged on the lead, the dog’s nostrils twitching at the secret scent of rabbits in the churchyard, the women came again. He tried not to seem interested, but the moment they walked through the gate and passed him by, he could not stop himself from sneaking a glance. They acknowledged him with a polite nod of the head, then moved on, intent about their business. It was almost as if he was not there.
In her own way, each of the women was beautiful. The taller of the two, who looked about fifty, had long chestnut-brown hair, grey in places, tied back with a ribbon, and lovely golden-brown eyes, a smart though ample figure and softly rounded features. Today, the bouquet of evergreens cradled in her arm seemed to accentuate her beauty; though it was not a virgin beauty, for the crippling seasons of time and emotion were deeply etched in her face.
She walked with a stick, long and slender with bone handle and silver-capped toe. It was obvious that she was crippled in some slight way, though this did not detract from her air of dignity and sense of purpose. With her sombre bearing and her carefully-measured steps, she made a striking figure.
He knew they were headed for the same headstone, where he himself had paused many times. In the shape of a cross, the headstone was small and nondescript, yet the words written there were so powerful, they raised that humble stone above all others. The words, carved deep, read:
A MAN OF COURAGE.HE MADE THE GREATESTSACRIFICE OF ALL.
Having read the inscription and been intrigued by it, Ben knew it off by heart. It had set his thoughts alight with all manner of questions. What had this man done to deserve such an accolade? What did the words mean? And who had ordered them to be inscribed? Somehow, he didn’t think it had anything to do with the heroism of war. This Barney Davidson would have been twenty-four when World War One broke out – and no doubt the young man had played his part – but he had died well before the second lot.
His attention was drawn to the two women.
With such tenderness that it took him aback, the older one stroked the tips of her fingers over the dead man’s name. Her voice broke with pride as she murmured, ‘Oh, my dearest Barney.’ In that moment when she lifted her gaze to the heavens, her brown eyes glittered with tears. So much pain, he thought. So much emotion.
He sensed that, somewhere deep inside, she carried a terrible burden. What was that old saying? ‘The eyes are the mirror of the soul.’ He wondered what sorrowful secrets were hers.
The man’s discreet gaze went now to the younger woman. Smaller, with a neat, if slightly plump figure, her fair hair was bobbed to the shoulders, and even from where he stood, he could see that her pretty eyes were the deepest shade of blue lavender. He imagined that normally, those eyes were quick to smile – but not today. Today her concerned gaze was trained on the older woman.
The two visitors were sensibly dressed. Like himself, each wore a long coat and sturdy shoes, for the weather had been foul of late, and in places the ground underfoot was treacherous.
In the early hours of this January Sunday in 1952, ditches and paths had run high with the melting remnants of a heavy snowfall. By midday the wind had heightened and now, judging by the darkening skies, it seemed a new storm was gathering.
‘Here, Chuck. Here, boy!’ he said in a harsh whisper, and tugged on the leash, quickly bringing the dog to heel. In a burst of affection, the animal jumped up and licked him, nearly sending him flying. Recovering, he patted the dog, then set off for the lych-gate and home.
He was only a few strides away from Barney Davidson’s tomb when the women left it and began walking on, merely an arm’s reach in front of him. Slowing his step, he continued to follow, the dog plodding obediently at his side.
They were almost at the gate when the older woman’s stick slipped in the mud and she fell heavily, seeming to twist her leg as she did so.
When her young companion cried out and immediately began struggling to bring her upright, he ran forward. ‘Please … let me help?’ Sliding his two hands under the older one’s arms, he gently hoisted her up. When she seemed steady, he let go, recovered her walking stick and handed it to her. ‘No real harm done, I hope?’ he said politely.
‘Thank you.’ Her dark eyes appraised him. ‘As you can see, I’m not as agile as I once was.’
A softer voice interrupted. ‘Yes, thank you, Mr … ?’ The young woman frowned. ‘How can we thank you properly, when we don’t know your name?’
His warm gaze enveloped her pretty face. ‘The name’s Ben,’ he revealed. ‘Benjamin Morris.’ Holding out his hand in greeting, he was pleasantly surprised and thrilled when she put her small hand in his. Surprised, because he found her grip firm and strong, as though she worked with her hands in some way. Thrilled because she seemed to hold on just that moment longer than necessary.
Having witnessed his reaction, the older woman gave a pleasant laugh. ‘My daughter Mary has a strong grip for a little one, don’t you think?’
Mary tried to explain. ‘It comes from gardening,’ she said shyly. ‘A few years ago our old gardener retired, and rather than take on someone new, I persuaded Mother to let me have a go at the job.’ Her face flushed with pleasure. ‘It’s hard work, mind, but I love every minute of it.’
‘Mary is a worker, all right,’ her mother declared. ‘When she’s not up to her eyes in the garden, she works five days a week in her flower-shop in Leighton Buzzard, and whenever the chance arises, she’s out and about delivering the flowers herself, driving the shop-van.’ Tutting, she finished quietly, ‘I don’t know where she finds the energy!’
‘A busy lady then?’ Ben looked down into that bright lively face and wondered why she was not married. ‘And may I ask what you do in this garden of yours?’
It was the mother who answered. ‘She spends every spare minute she’s got in it, that’s what she does!’ From the reproachful glance she gave Mary, it was apparent that she thought her daughter should be enjoying her life and doing other things while she was still young. ‘She grows all our own produce,’ she said proudly, ‘and she’s completely redesigned the garden, made it into a little paradise with delightful walkways and colourful blossom round every corner, except,’ she glanced at the ominous skies, ‘of course, on days like this.’
‘Then it sounds like time well spent,’ Ben commented. He wondered why it was that Mary spent every spare minute in the garden. Did she never go out? Was she never approached by men who would like to enjoy her company? She was such a fetching little thing, he certainly wouldn’t mind the opportunity to get to know her better.
‘Oh, but the garden is so lovely!’ That was the mother talking again. ‘She’s even managed to carve out a number of little nooky holes – quiet places where you can escape the weather and enjoy your own company.’
The younger woman’s soft voice intervened. ‘I just thought it would be nice to have a quiet place where you could hide from the rest of the world.’ Blushing under her mother’s lavish praise, Mary made an effort to divert attention from herself. ‘Do you like gardening, Mr Morris?’
For a long moment he gazed down on her, his heart turning over like never before. ‘Why would you want to hide from the rest of the world?’ he asked, ignoring her question.
Mary had not expected him to answer with a question of his own. ‘Isn’t that what we all sometimes need?’ she asked cagily.
He wasn’t sure how to respond to that, so he didn’t. Instead he went back to her original question. ‘I farm,’ he answered lamely. ‘I’m afraid there isn’t a great deal of leisurely time left for gardening, or much else.’
Her smile was appreciative. ‘In a way, farming could be called gardening, only on a larger scale … don’t you think?’
‘If you say so.’ When those lavender-blue eyes beamed as they did now, her whole face seemed to light up.
‘Well, I never!’ With a quick, mischievous smile on her face, the older woman reminded them, ‘There’s me badly injured, and you two exchanging pleasantries as if I wasn’t even here.’
The pair of them were mortified. ‘Whatever am I thinking of!’ Ben exclaimed. ‘I’m so sorry.’ He had been so occupied with the daughter, he had neglected the mother, and he was ashamed.
‘I must get Mother home.’ With her eyes still on Ben, Mary shifted closer to the older lady. ‘I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t been here just now.’
She had seen this stranger before, striding down the streets of Salford with his faithful dog in tow as she drove past in her van. Discreetly taking stock of him now that he was here, close beside her, she liked what she saw. Handsome, of manly build, with dark, expressive eyes, he seemed to be taken with her, and it was strange, but she felt oddly drawn to him.
‘I’m glad to have been of help.’ He wondered how he could sound so calm with his heart thumping fifteen to the dozen.
He glanced at the older woman and caught the glint in her smiling eyes; he realised she was taking everything in. He gestured at her ankle. ‘From the look of it, I don’t think you’ve broken anything.’
She nodded. ‘It’s probably just a sprain. Once I get home and put my feet up, I’ll be right as rain.’
‘It’s best you don’t put too much weight on that foot.’ Pointing across the fields, to the rambling, white-washed house in the distance, he informed them, ‘Far Crest Farm, that’s where I live. I’ll help you up there, shall I, to take a look at the ankle and see what can be done.’
Sensing their reluctance, he quickly added, ‘Or, if you’d prefer, I could nip up and get my car and take you home. It’s only a few minutes to the farmhouse.’
The older woman thanked him. ‘Don’t think I’m not grateful.’ She had a natural friendliness in her manner that warmed him to her. ‘But I’ll be well taken care of. Look there?’ Gesturing to the long dark car that waited by the kerbside outside the church, she revealed, ‘I have a car and driver waiting.’
Flustered, Ben apologised. ‘Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t realise …’
‘How could you?’ Her smile deepened. ‘I might be a frail old biddy walking with the aid of a stick, but as you see, I’m not short of a bob or two.’
Ben smiled. ‘You don’t strike me as a frail old biddy,’ he remarked, holding open the lych-gate for the two women to pass through it. ‘In fact, I imagine if anyone got on the wrong side of you, they might rue the day.’
The girl Mary had to smile at his comment. ‘You’re absolutely right. What you see is not always what you get.’ She gave her mother a curious glance. ‘Still waters run deep, isn’t that what they say?’
The older woman nodded but said nothing, though her gaze roamed back to the headstone, and the name Barney.
He had been a man amongst men, she thought. A man of such bravery it made her humble. Even now after all these years her heart wept for him, and for the unbearable torment he had endured, all in the name of love.
‘Oh, look! Here comes Adam now.’ As the driver approached to help her down the pavement, she reached out and shook Ben by the hand. ‘You’ve been very kind, Mr Morris. Thank you again.’
Leaning on the arm of her driver, she set off for the comfort of the big car, calling as she went, ‘By the way, my name is Lucy.’ She had taken a liking to this young fella me lad and, from the look on her daughter’s face, she suspected Mary had done the same.
‘Goodbye then,’ Ben replied. ‘Take care of yourself.’
‘Not goodbye,’ Mary said hopefully. ‘I’m sure our paths will cross again.’
He smiled into her eyes. There was so much he would have liked to say, but not now. Maybe not ever, he thought sadly.
In a moment the women were gone, and he felt lonely, as never before. Retracing his footsteps to the simple headstone, he read out the inscription. ‘He made the greatest sacrifice of all …’
The words burned in his soul. ‘Barney Davidson …’ he mused aloud. ‘Lucy’s husband, maybe? Her brother?’ Somehow he didn’t think so. His curiosity heightened. ‘What great sacrifice did you make, Barney?’ he wondered.
Deep in thought, he almost leaped out of his skin when a quiet voice said over his shoulder, ‘Barney was Lucy’s husband – died soon after they moved here. And as for the inscription … I’ve wondered that myself, many a time.’
Swinging round, Ben came face to face with the new vicar, the Reverend Michael Gray. ‘Oh, it’s you, Vicar!’ He greeted the older man with a sheepish grin. ‘I don’t usually make a habit of talking to myself,’ he explained, ‘but I must admit, I am curious.’
‘You know what they say about a man who talks to himself?’ In his late fifties, balding and bespectacled, Mike Gray had the hang-dog look of a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders. And yet his smile was heavenly.
When he began walking towards the gate, Ben went with him. ‘As you know, I’ve only been here a matter of a few months,’ the vicar went on to remind him, ‘but like you, I’m intrigued by that grave.’
‘Maybe you should ask the ladies?’ Ben suggested. ‘I’m sure they wouldn’t mind it coming from you – I mean, you being their vicar here at Saint Andrew’s.’
Mike Gray shook his head. ‘There have been times when I was sorely tempted to ask,’ he confessed, and slid a finger round to loosen his dog-collar. ‘Then I felt I might be intruding, so I thought it best to wait, at least until I know them a little better. They’ve been worshipping here for around twenty years, I believe. But of course, the war has occupied everyone’s thoughts, and that tombstone is old history now.’
‘You’re probably right,’ Ben replied. ‘All the same, it’s a curious thing, an inscription like that.’
‘Yes. As you say, a curious thing.’ The Reverend paused to stroke Chuck’s glossy head. ‘Our man obviously did something out of the ordinary.’ His features crinkled into a wry little smile. ‘It’s to be hoped we might all of us aspire to great things before we’re called.’ Raising his gaze to the skies, he gave a long, deep sigh. ‘Sadly, a lot of poor devils had to be heroes in the war, whether they wanted to, or not. The truth of it is, most of us simply do not have greatness in us.’
By the time they reached the gate, the men had covered every possibility. ‘Maybe he saved a life by forfeiting his own?’ Ben speculated.
‘Mmm.’ The vicar nodded. ‘Or he may have shown true bravery during the Great War. Certainly his age suggests he could well have been called up to serve his country.’
Ben considered that. ‘Could be.’
Pausing in his stride, Mike Gray glanced back towards the headstone, now dim in the failing light. ‘Whatever that inscription means,’ he declared soundly, ‘we can assume that our Barney Davidson was a remarkable man.’
Hearing a scuffle behind a great yew that stood near the vestry, Chuck suddenly slipped his lead and raced off. While Ben called him back, the vicar had spotted a dark object lying on the ground. He stooped to pick it up. ‘Well, I never!’ He wiped off the smears of dirt and dampness with the cuff of his sleeve.
A knowing smile creased his face. ‘This must belong to one of our ladies,’ he said. ‘Maybe, if you were to return this, you might be privileged to discover the true nature of that inscription?’
‘Mary’s mother must have dropped it when she fell over earlier. I would gladly deliver the handbag.’ Ben recalled the young woman and those pretty lavender-blue eyes. It would be good to see her again, he thought. ‘Only I don’t know where they live.’
‘Couldn’t be easier. They live at Knudsden House – you must know the place,’ the Reverend Gray prompted. ‘I recall admiring it when I came into the village for the first time. It’s that big Edwardian house, with the large, beautifully kept gardens. You can’t miss it.’
Ben had seen the place. An architect by training, he took a keen interest in the buildings around him. ‘Of course!’ he cried. ‘It’s the one set back from the lane, behind tall iron gates.’ He shook his head in disbelief. ‘I would never have guessed they lived there.’ Somehow, despite the elegant walking stick, and the chauffeur-driven car, he had pictured the women living in a large rambling cottage, with thatched roof and roses growing at the door.
The vicar remarked thoughtfully, ‘According to my housekeeper, Knudsden house used to belong to the village squire; he passed on some twenty years ago, and the house was put up for sale.’
Taking a moment to recall his housekeeper’s exact words, he went on, ‘It was then bought by Mr Davidson and his wife. Their daughter Mary was just an infant at the time. They were a family who preferred to keep themselves very much to themselves.’
There was a silence as Ben digested all of this information.
The vicar added thoughtfully, ‘For a long time they rarely ventured out. In recent years though, they have concerned themselves more with the community, and have given generously to any good cause; the daughter with her time and labour, and the mother with cash donations.’
‘Hmh! For someone who knows very little about the family, you seem to have gathered a fair amount of information.’
‘So I have.’ The vicar had surprised himself. ‘Don’t forget, I have my spies,’ he said wryly. ‘My housekeeper comes from a long line of gossips who’ve lived in this village since time began, so it goes without saying that what she doesn’t know isn’t worth knowing. Mind, the dead are good at keeping secrets – and even she doesn’t know the answer to the mystery of that inscription.’
When the Labrador bounded up, Ben grabbed his lead and wound it around his wrist. He shivered. The temperature had dropped, almost while they were talking.
‘And what about the daughter?’ Ben asked. ‘Did she attend the village school?’
‘No. Mary was educated at home. A tutor arrived each morning and departed every afternoon.’ The vicar’s voice dropped to a whisper. ‘It must have been a very lonely life for a little girl.’
Ben was thinking the very same, and his heart went out to her. ‘So, as far as you know, she never made friends?’
‘From what I’m given to understand, the daughter has no close friends, but she does get on very well with the two women who help them out. Elsie Langton does a bit of housekeeping. Her married daughter Rona works in the flower-shop. Mary is closer to Rona, which is understandable when they’re at the shop together most days.’
Ben had heard the name. ‘Is that the same Langton who keeps the smithy on the farm adjoining mine?’
‘That’s the father. He doesn’t own the farm, I know that much, but he makes a reasonable living, what with his smithy and the market-gardening. The Langton family are closer to the Davidsons than anyone else in the village.’
‘What about the man who drives for them?’
Again, the vicar was able to satisfy his curiosity. ‘Adam Chives is an old friend of Mrs Davidson’s who comes from Liverpool. He’s a quiet, well-liked man who lives in the cottage next to the big house.’ He passed the handbag to Ben. ‘I really must stop chatting and be on my way. I’ll leave this with you, shall I?’
‘I won’t be able to return it straight away.’ Ben took the handbag from him. ‘I’ve got hungry animals to be fed.’
‘Of course. I understand.’ Having worked all his adult life in rural parishes, the vicar was familiar with the way of things. ‘The animals don’t know or care what day it is, they still need tending.’ He gave a knowing nod. ‘Much like my own flock, eh?’
Ben examined the handbag; it was an expensive-looking leather one. ‘I wonder we didn’t notice this on the ground before,’ he remarked. ‘I mean, you could hardly miss it, could you?’
The vicar agreed, but just then he spotted a small, round person calling his attention from the lane. ‘That’s Betty … my housekeeper,’ he groaned. ‘No doubt she’s landed herself in another crisis. Last week she broke the new vacuum cleaner; the week before that she let the bathroom sink overflow and nearly flooded the Vicarage.’
He rolled his eyes heavenward. ‘The Lord only knows what kind of chaos she’s been up to now!’
He waved a hand to let her know he was on his way. ‘I’d best go,’ he grumbled, ‘before the house comes tumbling down round our ears!’ His good-natured laugh told Ben he would probably forgive the housekeeper her latest mishap.
‘What about the handbag?’ Ben called after Mike Gray. ‘What if it doesn’t belong to them?’
‘Then it will belong to someone else, I suppose,’ the man turned and answered. ‘But we won’t know until you ask, will we? Just take the handbag with you. You can return it to Knudsden House, after you’ve seen to your animals.’
His wink was meaningful. ‘Besides, I saw you and young Mary chatting, and if you don’t mind me saying, I thought you made a right handsome pair. I’m sure she would be very pleased if you turned up on her front doorstep.’
Then he was away, rushing down the lane with a sense of urgency, following the small round person tripping on in front, shouting over her shoulder and seeming frantic about something or another.
Smiling to himself, Ben went on his way. A vicar’s life wasn’t as dull as he’d imagined. Then he thought about Mary, and his mood softened. The vicar was right: he and the girl had got on very well, though whether she really would be pleased to see him turn up on her doorstep was another matter altogether.
Away from the church-grounds and into open countryside, he set the dog loose. ‘And don’t go splashing through the brook!’ he called after the big animal. ‘I haven’t got time to give you a bath today.’ He had more important things to do. Uppermost in his mind was the proposed visit to Knudsden House.
Striding across the field, he kept a wary eye on the dog; when the Labrador took off after a rabbit, he called him back. ‘Here, Chuck! Good boy.’
On his master’s call, Chuck came bounding back, but was soon off again at the sight of another dog being set loose across the field. Seeing the reason for his pet’s excitement, Ben let him have his head, smiling at the sight of Chuck canoodling with the smaller, prettier animal. ‘Casanova! Chase anything in a skirt, so you would,’ he said aloud.
Covering the ground at a fast pace, he drew his coat tighter about him; the wind was getting up, the skies were darkening and the smell of storm was strong in the air. He called the dog to heel, but by now he was nowhere in sight. ‘Chuck! Here, boy!’ He scoured the landscape, and called again, but the dog was gone.
Ben was nearly home now. Quickening his steps, he made for the top of the rise. From there he had the world at his feet, and the dog in his sights. ‘C’mon, fella!’ But Chuck was too engrossed in dancing after his fancy piece. With a sterner voice Ben caught his attention. ‘Here, boy!’ he bellowed.
With ears pricked and head bent to the wind, the dog raced up the hill and was soon close to heel. A few minutes later the two of them were hurrying down the path to the farmhouse.
‘I’m off now, Mr Morris.’ The old man came through the field gate and clicked it shut. ‘I shan’t be sorry to get home,’ he told Ben. ‘It’s turned real chilly all of a sudden.’ Taking off his flat cap, he scratched his head and looked up to the skies. ‘I reckon it’s blowing up a real nasty storm.’
Ben agreed. ‘You’re right,’ he observed. ‘Mind how you go and I’ll see you tomorrow.’
When Ben bought the farm, old Les had been part and parcel of the place. Ben had never regretted agreeing to keep him on because he was hardworking and reliable, a real treasure; besides which he had a cheery wife to keep, and a lazy good-for-nothing grandson, who showed up from time to time looking for a handout, and though he was more trouble than he was worth, poor old Les never turned him away.
‘I’ve stripped the tree-branches and brought them down,’ Les informed him now. ‘You’ll find them all stood up at the back of the barn, ready for chopping. By the time you’ve finished, there’ll be enough to keep the whole of Salford in firewood. Oh, and I’ve levelled that back field just as you asked – though you’ll need a new axle for the tractor. If you ask me it won’t last above another month at best.’
Quick to agree, Ben put a proposition to the old fella. ‘I think it’s time we had a new tractor altogether. What would you say to that, eh?’
The old man’s face lit up. ‘I’d say that were a blooming good idea!’
‘Right then. We’ll make arrangements to go and look at a few. Now get off home, Les, and take a well-earned rest.’
‘I could stay and help you with the animals if you like?’ From the moment he had shaken Ben’s hand, Les had recognised the good in him. His first impressions had proved right, for Ben was fair-minded, caring and generous, and though he had never worked on the land before he bought Far Crest Farm, he had taken to it like a duck to water.
‘The missus won’t mind,’ Les persisted. ‘Just say the word and I’ll be right behind you. We’ll have that lot fed in no time at all.’
Ben shook his head. ‘Thanks all the same, but I can manage well enough on my own.’
‘I’m not past it yet, I’ll have you know,’ the old man argued. ‘And it weren’t my fault that the boar took against me.’
‘I know you’re not past it. And I also know it wasn’t your fault that the boar took against you. But he did, and you were almost killed, and I’m not prepared to take that chance again.’
Ben didn’t want to hurt the old man’s feelings, but if he hadn’t managed to distract the boar that day, Les would have been killed for sure. As it was, he suffered a broken leg and had been left with a slight limp. Ben still felt guilty. ‘Look, we’ve gone over all this time and again, and I won’t change my mind,’ he said gently, then: ‘Besides, don’t you think you do enough round here already?’
‘I could do more, if only you’d let me.’
‘There’s no need, Les. The arrangement we have works very well. We do the ploughing and sowing between us. I keep the hedges down, you bring in the old branches, and I chop them up. With the help of casual work when the harvest is got in, this little farm runs like clockwork, so let’s not spoil a good thing, eh?’
The old man shrugged. ‘If you say so, Mr Morris.’
‘I do, but don’t think I’m not grateful for the offer. I’ll let you into a secret, shall I? I enjoy feeding the animals.’ He grinned. ‘They’ve begun to think I’m their mummy.’
The old man laughed. ‘You certainly have a way with ’em, I’ll say that for yer.’ He pulled the neb of his cap down over his forehead. ‘If yer sure then, I’d best make tracks. I expect the missus will have the tea on the table and the kettle already singing away.’
Before they parted, Ben assured him quietly, ‘Les – you do know I could never manage this place without you?’
That brought a smile to the old farmhand’s face, for he was well aware of how Ben Morris had bypassed younger, stronger men in order to keep him in work. ‘You’re a good man, Mr Morris, God bless you.’ With that he was quickly gone, away down the path, off to the village, and home to his darling woman.
For the next couple of hours, Ben was kept busy. He had a tried and tested feeding routine; despite this, it was not only a dirty job but a time-consuming one, too. There were two hundred chickens in the hen-house; twenty fat porkers in the pig-pens; the same number of milking cows in the small barn, and a small flock of thirty sheep in the big barn.
Feeding them all took between two and three hours in the morning and the same at night, and when they were let loose in the fields, all the barns and sheds had to be mucked out, ready for when the weather turned and the animals were brought back in again.
As he went inside the farmhouse, Ben gave a sigh of relief. He had fallen in love with the place the moment he set foot through the door. It was like a calm after the storm, a haven where he could lick his wounds and grow strong again.
The year leading up to the move had been the worst of his life. After leaving the RAF, in which he had served for three years after his training, he had gone back to his career as an architect. When the company went bust through financial mismanagement and shortages of some basic materials, he took out a loan to start up his own business. Sadly, it never really took off. He sold the premises at a loss, and found work with the local council, but hated every minute of it. His wife grew distant because there were no longer the funds to maintain the kind of life she wanted. Then his lively, darling daughter Abbie, by then aged eighteen, moved out of the family home and he had missed her terribly.
He hoped he and his wife Pauline would grow closer, and he believed this was happening – until he caught her in bed with his best friend, Peter. There had been a long and unpleasant period when he didn’t know which way to turn. His daughter had been his salvation, but she had already forged a life of her own; she shared a flat with two other girls and had a good job, working for a tea-importer in London. Thankfully, the break-up of her parents’ marriage had not seemed to interfere too much with all that.
The divorce had been a messy business, and the only ones to come out of it winning were the lawyers. Still, Ben was determined not to slide into bitterness, because what was done was done, and there was no turning back for either of them.
When it was over, he and his wife were left with enough from the sale of their family home to start again. She had gone to live abroad with her new husband, while Ben chose a completely different way of life. He was happy enough now. Perhaps happier, in a strange way, than he had ever been.
Taking a deep invigorating sigh, he looked around the farmhouse. There was a warm feel of history in this delightful little place. He could not deny it had its disadvantages, though they were small compared to the joy he had found here. The whisper of a smile crossed his features as he recalled the number of times he’d banged his head on the low cross-beams, and the wood-burning stoves caused more dust and dirt than he could ever have envisaged. The small windows were draughty, and when the wind drove the rain, it came right through the framework to soak the walls. The flagstone floors were sunk and broken in places and even in the height of summer there was a dampness in the air that got right into the bones. This was his first winter in the cottage, and once the better weather arrived, he knew he would have to put in many a long hour working on the house in between his other responsibilities.
Yet in spite of all that, he would not have changed one single thing.
As always, he went straight to the kitchen, where he turned on the gas stove, filled the kettle and set it for boiling. ‘Now then, Chuck.’ Going to the pantry, he took out a lamb chop and dropped it into the dog’s bowl. ‘You chew on that while I see who’s been writing to me.’
Returning to the dresser, he picked up the mail which had lain there since yesterday. There was a bill for animal feed, a card reminding him to return an overdue book to the local library, and a white envelope with a tuppenny stamp and a small pink flower drawn in the corner.
‘We know who this is from, don’t we, eh?’ He cocked an eye at the dog, who was far too busy enjoying his treat to worry about what the postman had brought.
Ben took out the letter and unfolded it, his eyes scanning the words and his heart warming as he read them aloud:
I’ve managed to get time off at last, so if it’s OK with you, I plan to visit for a few days. It’s been too long since we had a real heart-to-heart, don’t you think? I’m not sure which day I’ll turn up, but it’ll either be next Sunday or Monday. If that doesn’t fit in with your plans, you’ll have to let me know a suitable date. If I don’t hear from you, I’ll assume it’s all right to arrive sometime on one of those days. I’m really looking forward to seeing you. Meanwhile, take care of yourself,
Your loving daughter,
Folding the letter, he slipped it back into the envelope before dropping it onto the dresser.
‘You’ll need to look to your laurels,’ he told the dog with a wag of his finger. ‘Abbie’s coming to stay, and when she’s about, no one gets any peace!’ His daughter was noisy, untidy and could be the most irritating creature in the world. More than a week of her company and he would likely be pulling his hair out. But oh, how he was looking forward to seeing her.
He was so excited that he cut his finger when making himself a cheese sandwich, and then found he could only nibble at it, though he swigged down three cups of tea and ravished the jam-tart made especially for him by Les’s wife. In fact, she’d made him a whole bagful only the day before yesterday, and this was the last one. ‘Sorry, matey,’ he told the dog who had demolished his chop and was begging for a crumb. ‘You’ve had your tea. This is mine, and besides, there isn’t enough here to share.’ Nevertheless, he was still shamed into throwing him a bite.
With the jam-tart all gone and the teapot emptied, Ben put on his work-clothes and with the dog at his heels, made his way to the yard where he unlocked the feed room. Here he laid out three large galvanised buckets; one for the chickens; one for the sheep and another for the pigs. That done, he lifted the lids from three of the drums and scooping out several sizeable helpings of food from each of them in turn, he filled the buckets to brimming.
Taking up the buckets, two in one hand and one in the other, he made his way over to the big barn. Knowing exactly when feed-time was, the sheep were already crowded round the food-troughs. On sight of him, they began pushing and shoving their way forwards. ‘Get back! BACK, I SAY!’
Fighting his way through the bleating animals, he partway filled the various troughs, then leaving the sheep to sort themselves out, he climbed the ladder to the hayloft, where he threw down four slices of hay, making certain that they landed far enough apart for everyone to get a fair share without too much argument.
Afterwards, he stood at the barn door for a minute or two. Satisfied that the sheep were all feeding and seeming content, he went outside to the tap, filled the bucket with water, returned inside and emptied it into the two water-troughs. ‘That should keep you going for a while,’ he told them. ‘Come the morning, I might let you loose in the fields.’
It was always a pleasure to set them free, for sheep were not indoor animals. Small-minded and built to eat, it was in their nature to nibble the pastures, get caught up in brambles and go lame at every opportunity.
With the sheep fed and set up for the night, he tramped off to the undercover pig-pens. Here he went through the same procedure, but with a different and coarser food, for pigs were gluttons and required bulk. Ben was always wary when surrounded by the porkers. Weighing upwards of half a ton each, they were capable of doing a man some considerable damage if he got in their way.
The boars in particular were an angry sort when penned, as old Les was quick to point out to Ben at the first opportunity. ‘I once knew a man whose prize boar drove his tusks clean through the poor chap’s thighbone; crippled him for life, it did. So don’t go messin’ with them big buggers, ’cause if they don’t get yer with their tusks, they’ll have yer over and trample yer underfoot!’ Les did not have to tell Ben twice. It was ironic that poor Les himself came a cropper soon after he’d issued that warning.
With the pigs happily burying their snouts in the troughs, Ben attended to the other animals; first the cows, then the chickens.
The cows were housed in the smaller of the two barns. The area had been divided up to provide eight large pens on one side and six on the other, with a birthing pen at the far corner. The beasts had more than enough room and as long as they were fed and watered and clean underfoot, they saw out the winter in comfort; though once the worst of the weather was over they, too, were always happy to be let loose in the fields.
The spacious chicken-house was a vast, open area, which gave the chickens ample room to run. At night they would either roost in the lower beams, or retire to the many small wooden houses set along either side of the walls. Sadly, some of the chickens fell prey to the odd fox who dared to burrow under the wire, which was dug in and around the entire perimeter. Thankfully it had not happened just lately, and Les kept a wary eye out for weak links in the netting.
A long while later, Ben made his weary way back to the farmhouse. At the door he kicked off his boots and overalls before going through to the parlour.
First, he made himself a cup of well-earned tea, then it was off upstairs for a much-needed bath. He’d lit the geyser to heat up the water long since. ‘I can’t be going to see the ladies smelling of pig manure and chicken-muck,’ he told the dog, who simply rolled over, gave a long, shuddering yawn and fell into a deep sleep.
In the bathroom he turned on the taps and let the bath fill while he stripped off. A few moments later he slithered under the water and lay there for awhile, luxuriating in the warmth and thinking of young Mary, with whose pretty lavender-blue eyes and the way her mouth turned up at the corners when she smiled …
AT EIGHT O’CLOCK that evening, Ben arrived at the front door of Knudsden House. Standing on the top step of the little flight of stairs, he fidgeted nervously before reaching up and knocking briskly.
The door opened and Mary stood before him. His breath caught. Divested of her heavy winter coat, she was wearing a lilac-coloured twin-set and a pretty knee-length skirt. The light from the hall and from her, too, dazzled him.
Fumbling, he brought out the bag from where he’d been hiding it under his coat. ‘I found this,’ he said jerkily.
‘It’s my mother’s! Thank you.’
The women had discovered the loss of the handbag once they’d arrived home. Fortunately, Mary had her own front-door key and could let them in. Adam had offered to go and look for it, after searching the car and not finding it, but Lucy had said no, not to worry. She felt far too unwell for any fuss, and the bag would turn up somehow. People round here were honest men and women.
‘Won’t you come in?’ Mary asked now. ‘I expect Mother will want to thank you herself.’
Accepting her invitation without hesitation, Ben followed her through to the drawing room. ‘Is your mother all right? I mean, has she suffered any ill-effects from the fall?’
‘She says she’s all right. With Mother, you’re never really sure.’
When Mary turned to smile at him, Ben felt foolish; like a shy young boy on his first date instead of a forty-year-old man of the world.
For what seemed the longest moment, she continued to gaze on him, her quiet smile reaching deep into his senses. Suddenly the smile fell away and, slowing her step, she confided in him.
‘The truth is, since she fell in the churchyard, she hasn’t seemed well at all,’ she whispered. ‘I’m worried about her.’ Before she inched open the door, she confessed, ‘I wanted to call Dr Nolan, but she won’t hear of it.’ A sigh escaped her lips. ‘She’s so independent – and stubborn like you wouldn’t believe. But I’m half tempted to call the doctor anyway.’
‘There’s no use you whispering, my girl!’ Lucy called out from the inner room. ‘I can hear every word, and there’ll be no doctor coming into this house!’
On entering the room, Mary was told in no uncertain terms, ‘If I needed a doctor – which I don’t – there is only one I would agree to seeing, and he’s living out his retirement in Liverpool. So we’ll have no more talk of doctors. Are you listening to me, Mary?’
Reluctantly, the girl nodded. ‘Mr Morris found your bag in the churchyard. He’s brought it back. I thought you might want to thank him yourself.’
‘Mmm.’ Her reproachful gaze rested on her daughter for a second or two before switching to Ben. ‘I love my daughter dearly, but she will fuss.’
‘Only because she’s worried about you, I’m sure.’
While he spoke, Ben was aware of how the room reflected Lucy’s personality. There was the solid furniture, reliable and stalwart, and then there was the colour and vibrancy in the curtains and the rugs. On following Mary into the room, he had felt her life all about him, in the lavish bright paintings on the walls, and the many figures, sculpted in china and pewter – some in the throes of embrace, others dancing, with arms in the air and feet atwirl.
They reminded him of Lucy herself; mature in beauty, yet very much alive.
‘She’s no need to worry,’ Lucy snapped. ‘I’m fit as a fiddle, thank goodness – always have been.’ Her thoughts went back to her youth, to the time she’d gone astray, and the consequences that followed. Good times and bad, when life was lived to the full, when friends helped you through and nothing seemed to matter. And then there was Barney.
Her heart grew sore at the thought of that wonderful man.
Mentally shaking herself, she told Ben, ‘That’s two kindnesses you’ve shown me in one day. So thank you again, young man.’
‘It was the vicar who found it,’ Ben explained. ‘I simply offered to return it.’ He liked being called ‘young man’, though in truth, he was only about twelve years younger than Lucy, and indeed, had a grown-up daughter of his own. His feelings for Mary, however, were definitely not those of a father.
When he turned to smile at Mary, Lucy was quick to see the spark between them. ‘I dare say that’s because you wanted to see my Mary again.’ Her face crinkled into that same mischievous smile he had seen at the churchyard. ‘Taken a liking to her, have you?’ When she gave a naughty wink, he couldn’t help but grin, despite his bashfulness.
‘Mother!’ Mary’s face went a bright shade of pink. ‘What a thing to say! Don’t embarrass Mr Morris. I’m sure he was thinking no such thing.’
But Lucy took no notice. Addressing Ben, she put him on the spot. ‘Tell the truth and shame the devil, Mr Morris. You volunteered to return my bag because you hoped to catch a glimpse of Mary, isn’t that the truth?’
Ben laughed out loud. ‘Do you always see through people so easily?’ It was strange, he thought, how easy he felt in her presence. ‘Yes, you’re right. I was hoping I might see her again.’
‘There! I knew it!’ Clapping her hands together with excitement, the older woman said triumphantly, ‘I knew he’d taken to you, Mary – didn’t I say so? And here you are – you haven’t even asked our guest if he’d like to join us for supper. Shame on you, my girl!’
‘Shame on you, Mother, for embarrassing us both like that.’ Even though she was elated by Ben’s admission that he had been hoping for a glimpse of her, Mary was so mortified she wanted the floor to open up and swallow her. Whatever would Ben think of her now? She hoped he would refuse the offer of supper and make some excuse to leave straight away.
Lucy’s instincts were meanwhile telling her that here was a good man, a fine husband for her daughter, if he were free. She had little doubt but that these two could make a fine, happy life together. Yes! Should anything untoward happen to herself in the near future, Ben Morris was the very man to take good care of Mary, for he reminded her of Barney, in his smile and his manner.
Lately, she had been feeling very low in spirits and health, and Mary’s future had come to concern her deeply. Although Ben must be twice her daughter’s age, and would have his own story to tell about his life and the reasons for his arrival in Salford, he seemed a kind and honourable man. She had already noted the hint of sadness in his eyes, and his beautiful artistic hands, not yet roughened by farm-work. It was time to find out more about him. She would start with the most important question.
‘Are you married?’
‘REALLY, MOTHER!’ Horrified, Mary sprang forward. ‘One minute you invite Mr Morgan to supper, and the next you’re quizzing him about his private life. I’m sure he won’t stay a minute longer than he has to – and who would blame him?’
Over the past few years, there had been several young chaps who had shown an interest in her; to her dismay, Lucy had systematically sent them all packing. Yet there were good reasons for this: not one of them was good enough for her, Lucy said grimly, and had been proved right when each one had eventually shown his true colours.
‘Nonsense! I mean no harm. I’m just being my usual, nosy self,’ Lucy replied with a stay of her hand. ‘Besides, I should be old enough now to speak my mind without offending anyone. I’m quite sure our Mr Morris won’t mind. After all, we need to know the calibre of the man who’s crossed our path twice today.’
Addressing Ben she asked pointedly, ‘Are you offended by my questions?’
Ben shook his head. ‘I was married and now I’m divorced,’ he said quietly. ‘Not the most pleasant experience of my life, I have to admit.’
‘And have you children?’
‘A daughter … Abbie.’
‘And where is she?’
‘Abbie lives in London, where she shares a flat with other young working people. I miss her, but she is due to come down to Far Crest Farm next week to spend a few days with me.’
‘That’s enough, Mother!’ Stepping forward as though to protect Ben, Mary told him, ‘You’re welcome to stay to supper, but you can leave right now if you want to, and I wouldn’t blame you. You see, Mother won’t stop asking questions until she knows everything about you.’ Mary so much wanted him to stay, but it had to be his choice.
‘That’s OK. I might even ask a few questions of my own, later,’ he said.
Lucy laughed out loud. ‘Now then, young man. Will you stay or will you run?’
‘I’ll stay.’ His mind was already made up. ‘Thank you very much. Should I go home and change for the occasion?’ He had an idea that Lucy Davidson might be a stickler for protocol.
He was wrong. ‘You look decent enough to me, so you can put that silly idea out of your head,’ she said. ‘It won’t take Mary long to rustle up a meal for the three of us. Meanwhile, just make yourself at home.’
‘If you say so.’ It was a strange thing, but her brisk, authoritative manner was not off-putting to him. His instincts told him it was all an act on her part. ‘I’m grateful to you both.’ When he and Mary exchanged smiles, Lucy was thrilled. The more she saw of Ben, the more she liked and trusted him. He was the one for her daughter; she was sure of it.
So it was settled.
Ben considered himself fortunate to be sharing an evening with Mary and her mother. He liked Lucy, she was a rare character. Though it was Mary at the forefront of his thoughts. For some inexplicable reason, the young woman had captured his imagination – and possibly his heart, though it was much too early to tell, he thought warily.
He had been in love before, and it had turned out to be a heartache.
After that crippling experience with Pauline, he was not ready to throw himself in at the deep end with anyone.
MARY PEERED OUT into the garden from the big bay window. Its light spilled out onto the lawn, where Ben was carefully picking his way along the path, looking at her handiwork.
‘You don’t need to send for Elsie,’ she told her mother. ‘I’m a poor thing if I can’t organise a simple dinner for three.’
‘I know that,’ Lucy retorted. ‘It’s just that I want you and Ben to get to know each other, and you can’t do that if you’re in the kitchen cooking, can you?’
‘Oh Mam, you’re a devil, you are!’ Mary couldn’t help but smile. ‘I know what you’re up to, and I think you’ve embarrassed him enough, without trying to throw us together. If he likes me and I like him, then things might happen naturally, and if they don’t, they don’t.’ Though she hoped they would, for she had not met a man like Ben before. He seemed so mature beside her former boyfriends.
‘And do you?’
‘Do I what?’
Lucy groaned. ‘BEN! Do you like him?’
‘I’d be a fool to tell you if I did.’ Mary shook her head. ‘Think whatever you want,’ she said casually. ‘You will anyway.’ Her mother was the rarest and most wonderful of characters. She never missed a trick. When Lucy Davidson was around, there was no use trying to keep secrets.
‘Where is he now?’ Curious, Lucy stretched her neck to see out of the window. ‘He’s not escaped, has he? You’ve not frightened him off, I hope.’
Mary laughed at that. ‘No! He wanted to see what I’d been doing to the garden, that’s all.’
Lucy tutted. ‘Silly girl! Don’t you know anything?’ Sometimes she despaired of her, and at other times she was proud of Mary – and proud of herself – because it meant that she had raised an intelligent, trusting girl who saw the good in everyone.
‘What are you getting at, Mother?’
‘It’s fairly obvious, isn’t it? He wanted you to go with him. Oh, dearie me!’
Mary would not admit it to her mother, but she had been sorely tempted to join Ben in the garden. However, there wasn’t enough time. If the women had been on their own, a bowl of soup and slice of cold apple-pie would have done them proud for supper, but having invited Ben to join them, they had to do better than that. Mary was planning to cook some pork chops, and serve them with mashed potatoes and homemade pickle.
‘You forget, I’ve a dinner to cook,’ she answered. ‘There’ll be time enough later for us all to get to know each other.’
A familiar tap on the living-room door curtailed their conversation. Hurrying to the door, Mary drew it open. ‘Hello, Adam,’ she said, and hugged him. These past years, the small man had been like a father to her although, like the gent he was, Adam had always kept his distance.
Lucy’s face lit up. ‘Adam, come in. Come in!’ Dismissing Mary with a wave of her hand, she reminded her, ‘I thought you were away to start supper?’
‘I was … I am.’ Looking from Adam to her mother, the girl couldn’t help but wonder what was going on. Whenever her mother wanted her out of the way like this, there was usually something brewing. But then she was always involved in some scheme or another, bless her heart. It was what kept her going.
‘Go on then,’ Lucy reprimanded her. ‘Adam and I have business to discuss, so be off with you.’ She had been unable to speak to him privately earlier, when he’d driven her and Mary to the churchyard, and now she wanted a quiet word with him.
‘She doesn’t change, does she, Adam?’ Mary groaned light-heartedly. ‘Same old bully as ever.
Adam’s fond gaze bathed the older woman. ‘She’ll never change,’ he said softly. ‘Thank God.’ The same age as Lucy, he had stayed with her through thick and thin, and every inch of the way he had loved and adored her from afar. Lucy knew it, yet she never said. She felt a lot of affection for him too. But it was not the same deep, driving passion she’d had for Barney. That kind of love happened only once in a lifetime.
And yet in her deepest heart, though he had taken good care of her and showed her nothing but kindness, she knew that Barney had not loved her back in the same way. How could he, when his own dearest love was thousands of miles away, probably still yearning for her darling Barney and suffering bitter-sweet thoughts of this wonderful man, whom she had adored more than any other, and who for reasons she might never know, had broken her heart and her life.
It had been a tragedy; a cruel and sorry business that only the gods could have prevented – at least, that was what Barney always claimed.
‘I’m sorry I had to use the key to let myself in,’ Adam explained. ‘I did knock a few times, but no one answered. You obviously didn’t hear me.’
‘No need to apologise,’ Lucy chided. ‘The key was given so you could use it whenever necessary. It was necessary on this occasion, so we’ll hear no more about it.’
‘It’s no wonder we didn’t hear you at the door,’ Mary remarked good-naturedly. ‘Mother was too busy having a go at me, laying down the law and trying to fit me up with a man who was kind enough to return her handbag.’
‘Dear, dear!’ With an aside wink, Adam tutted loudly. ‘Interfering again, is she? Mind you, I can’t say I blame her.’
With her sound and wary experience of men, Lucy could tell the wheat from the chaff. Mary, on the other hand, was more trusting and less worldly-wise. The lass was not what you might call beautiful, but she was a good-looking young woman all the same, with a heart of gold and a great deal to offer. Adam had no doubt but that she would make some man a loving and loyal wife one of these days.
With Mary gone, Lucy bade Adam sit in the chair opposite her. ‘Have you done what I asked?’ she said in a low voice.
He nodded. ‘I have. I drove straight up to Liverpool early yesterday and went to see him at his house.’
Lucy gave a long, deep sigh. ‘Thank you. I knew I could rely on you.’ Her eyes clouded with tears, she asked next, ‘What did he say?’
Adam was reluctant to disappoint her. ‘He was surprised to hear from me. I mean, it’s been a good few years, hasn’t it?’
She nodded. ‘Nigh on twenty, plus there’s been the war and all. And is he well?’
‘None too bad, yes.’
‘What was his answer?’
The man had no choice but to relay the truth. ‘Sorry, Lucy. Much as he would love to see you again, he can’t visit. At least not yet.’
Lucy was dismayed at the news. ‘Oh Adam, why not?’ Disappointment shook her voice. ‘Why can’t he come down here?’
Adam explained: ‘He’s been ill for some time, see – bronchitis and some sort of complication, like pleurisy. He’s only now beginning to come through it. He’s not as young as he used to be, think on. None of us are.’
Lucy nodded her understanding. ‘He can’t help being ill, I suppose,’ she said.
‘But he sends his regards and says you’re to take care of yourself, and he promises to come and visit at the first opportunity.’ Fishing in his pocket, Adam handed her an envelope. ‘He asked me to give you this.’
Taking the envelope, Lucy tore it open and took out the letter, which she read aloud:
My dearest Lucy,
How wonderful to hear from you, after all these long years. I hope you are well, and that you’re being your usual self … living life to the full, the brave young woman I remember from my days as a doctor.
I don’t need to tell you how sorry I was to hear about Barney’s death. Like you, I will never forget him, or what he did. When he begged me to keep his secret, I wrestled with my conscience but God help me, I could not refuse him.
Over the years, I have often thought of Barney, and his impossible situation, but I have never regretted doing what I did; nor I imagine did he.
Take care of yourself, Lucy my dear, and when I’m well enough, I promise I will come and visit. It will be just the tonic I need, I’m sure.
May I say, I was most pleased and surprised to see Adam Chives; your dear friend who, as I understand it, is never far from your side … as ever.
Best wishes. May God bless you both,
Lying back in the chair, Lucy closed her eyes. For a long moment she remained silent.
‘Lucy!’ Adam knew she was bitterly disappointed. ‘He will visit – he said so, and as I recall, he was always a man of his word.’
‘I know.’ She opened her eyes, which were bright with tears. ‘Poor Raymond. I don’t doubt he’s had his own fair share of problems, but oh, it would have been so good to see him.’ She paused, suddenly exhausted. ‘Jamie …’ she whispered.
Concerned, Adam touched her on the hand. ‘Are you all right, lass?’
‘It’s brought everything back, that’s all.’ Needing to reassure him, she gave her brightest smile, and for the briefest moment he saw her as she had been all those years ago – young and vibrant; hardworking and so generous of heart.
‘So tell me, Lucy, what was the real reason behind your need to see him?’
‘What d’you mean?’ Lucy demanded.
Adam knew she could be wily. ‘What I mean is this: are you ill and not telling?’
‘If I was ill, you’d soon know about it,’ she lied. Carefully choosing her words, she went on, ‘You remember how it was all those years ago, don’t you?’
‘Of course I remember.’ Looking away, he saw it all in his mind’s eye. He had often wondered whether, if he had been put through the same test as Barney, he could have been as strong. ‘I remember it all,’ he whispered. ‘How could I forget?’
‘And you recall what a valued friend Dr Lucas was?’ Her voice shook. Oh, the memories! She swallowed hard and went on: ‘I just thought it might be nice to renew an old friendship.’
The truth was, Lucy had other reasons for wanting him here, but she didn’t want to worry anyone. Not yet. Although the doctors hereabouts were fine, experienced men, she could not bring herself to trust them for something this serious. If there was one man who would tell her the truth, it was Raymond Lucas.
‘I’m getting older, Adam. As each day passes, the memories become more vivid.’ She drew herself up. ‘I need to thank Dr Lucas for what he did. I want to see him, that’s all … before it’s too late.’
Alarmed, the little man looked her in the eye. ‘Are you sure there’s something you’re not telling me?’
‘Such as what?’
Dismissing her question he asked, ‘What exactly did Dr Nolan say to you when he saw you at the surgery last week?’
She tutted. ‘I’ve already told you. He said I needed to slow down. That I was exhausted.’
‘And that’s all? Nothing else?’
Tutting again, Lucy snapped, ‘Stop fretting! I’ve already told you, I’m fit as a fiddle – for an old ’un anyway.’ She chuckled, ‘If they want rid of me, they’ll have to shoot me first.’
There was a lengthy silence, charged with things unsaid. The bond between them was deep.
Even though the passage of their lives was already well run, there was nothing Adam Chives wanted more than to make Lucy Davidson his wife. He longed to take care of her, spoil her, hold her tight when she was sad and laugh with her when she was happy. To be there when she went to sleep and waiting beside her when she awoke; to share every precious moment of her life. That was all he had wanted for a long, long time.
Lucy knew it had been on the tip of his tongue to propose to her. She recognised the signs, the twinkle in his eye and the ache in his voice, and she had to disappoint him yet again. ‘I don’t want you worrying about me, old friend. You just need to remember, I’m no longer a spring chicken – and the same goes for you.’ Sometimes her bones ached until she thought they would seize up altogether, and on occasions, when she had walked with her stick too far, her fingers curled round the handle and would not let go.
Reaching out, she took hold of his hand. ‘I’m a lucky woman to have such a friend – the very best friend any woman could ever have.’ Except for Barney, she thought. But then he had been more than a friend. He had been everything to her: friend, hero, lover, soulmate and confidant. All the men in the world rolled into one could never replace her beloved Barney.
Yet she owed this dear man so much. ‘I could never have got through these past years without you.’ She squeezed his hand fondly. ‘You have to believe that.’
Gazing at her, his heart flooding with all kinds of emotions, he said gruffly, ‘You know I’ll always be here for you, whenever you need me.’
His heartfelt promise touched her deeply. ‘Oh, Adam! So many secrets,’ she murmured regretfully, ‘so much pain. Whatever I do, I can’t bring him back. I can’t make it all better. Sometimes, when I’m in my bed with the sleep lying heavy on me, the awful memories come flooding back, and I think about Barney’s loved ones.’ She lowered her gaze. ‘I should tell them, shouldn’t I?’
Adam sighed deeply. ‘You must follow your heart on that one, Lucy, my lass. I can’t advise. No one can.’
‘If only I knew whether it would make matters better or worse.’ Her voice broke. ‘God help me, old friend, I don’t know what to do.’
‘You should ask yourself: if you were to tell them, would it be to ease their burden … or your own?’
Lucy had already asked herself that same question many times. ‘I don’t think anything could ease my burden,’ she answered thoughtfully, ‘but it pains me badly, to think they may never know what sort of man he really was.’
Sometimes the weight of it all was unbearable. ‘For the rest of their lives, they’ll remember what happened; they’ll think of it and the bitterness will rise. They can never see the truth. They’ll see it the way Barney wanted them to see it.’ She gulped back the threatening tears. ‘That’s a terrible thing, you know, Adam. It isn’t fair to them, and it isn’t fair to Barney.’
Weighing it up in his mind, Adam slowly nodded his head. ‘You must do what your heart tells you, my darling,’ he reiterated kindly. ‘Like I say, no one can advise you on that, though once the truth is out, there’ll be no going back. You do realise that, don’t you?’
‘Only too well.’ The words sailed out on a long, quiet sigh. ‘What would it do to them? Would they blame themselves? Would they blame me … or Barney? And could they ever find it in their hearts to forgive?’
With both her hands she grabbed him by the arm, as though clinging to him for support. ‘God help me, Adam, if I make the wrong decision, they could be hurt beyond belief. And that wouldn’t be right, because none of it was their doing.’
‘What about Mary?’ Having seen her grow up, he had great affection for Lucy’s daughter. ‘Will you tell her?’
‘She will have to know at some stage.’ Lucy had been giving it some thought for a long time now. ‘I’ve agonised about what it would do to her if she learned the real truth about her daddy, but I’ve always known there would come a day when I would have to tell her the whole story.’
A look of pride flashed in her eyes. ‘Mary is strong. What she learns will come as a shock to her, yes, but I truly believe that in the end, she might just be the one to hold it all together.’
For a moment, the two of them sat and held hands, united. Then, breaking the moment, Lucy let go and looked mischievously at Adam.
‘Before I let you go, will you do me another favour?’
‘Knock on Elsie Langton’s door and ask her if she wouldn’t mind coming back to prepare a meal for three.’
He chuckled. ‘You old fox! You’ve got it all planned, haven’t you?’
‘Well, the two of them will never get together with him in the garden freezing half to death and her in the kitchen getting all hot and bothered. It’s up to us old ones to show them the way.’ She gave him a little push. ‘Go on then! Fetch yon Elsie back and tell her she’ll be paid double time for the pleasure.’
Standing up, he looked down on her with admiration. ‘Consider it done,’ he said.
She waved her hand impatiently. ‘Get a move on, then! Don’t stand there until Mary’s up to her neck in potato peelings and cabbage. A whiff of that and our Prince Charming will be gone for good!’
Adam laughed out loud. ‘Mary’s right. You really are all kinds of a bully.’ With that he went away at a smart pace, chuckling and jingling the keys to the big car.
Then he wondered once more about the real reason she had wanted to see Dr Lucas, and his heart sank. God forbid that anything should happen to her, for the world would be a darker place without his Lucy.
Reaching the smithy, Adam parked the big black car and walked up the footpath to the front door. Knowing how Charlie Langton was a bit deaf, he made a fist and knocked soundly on the door.
‘Gawd Almighty!’ Having rushed to see who was at his door, Elsie Langton’s husband was none too pleased to learn the reason for this late visit.
‘Can’t you buggers look after yerselves for five minutes!’ An old Lancastrian who had moved down south many years back, Charlie had lost none of his accent, and even less of his attitude. But he was harmless enough and there had never been such a dedicated blacksmith; besides which he always gave sweets to the children and was straightforward to deal with. You always knew where you were with Charlie, and after a while, folks had come to respect and like him.
Calling him inside he told Adam, ‘The poor lass never stops! She’s rushed in from the big ’ouse, got the dinner on the table, gulped hers down, and now she’s upstairs changing the bedclothes.’
An ordinary man with ordinary needs, Charlie suffered from a nervous twitch in his left eye whenever things got too much for him. The more agitated he grew, the more his eye twitched, and it was twitching now like never before. ‘Bloody folks wi’ money … think yer can do what yer like wi’ such as us!’
Being used to his ways, Adam took no offence. ‘I haven’t got any money,’ he said loudly, ‘and you know as well as I do that the Davidsons always do their best by this village.’
Charlie snorted and turning round, he informed Adam, ‘Aye well, that’s as mebbe, but I might like to ’ave the wife to mesel’ now an’ then. You buggers up at the ’ouse want to think o’ that.’ He gave the smaller man a shrivelling glance. ‘Besides, I might be a bit deaf, but I’ve still got one good ear, so there’s no need to shout like a damned fishwife.’
To Adam’s amusement, Charlie grumbled all the way down the passage. ‘She’ll not want to come back, and I wouldn’t blame ’er neither! If it were up to me, she’d be in the chair warming her feet by the fireside, but she’ll not listen to me, so I’ll not waste me time.’
Arriving at the bottom of the stairs, he raised his voice. ‘ELSIE! It’s the man from the big ’ouse to see yer!’ Giving Adam a scathing glance with the steady eye, he bawled again, ‘WANT BLOOD, THEY DO! YOU’D BEST COME AN’ SEE TO ’IM, ’CAUSE I’VE OTHER THINGS TO BE DOING.’
Within minutes there was a flurry of activity from the upper level, swiftly followed by the sound of footsteps coming down the stairs. ‘What’s to do?’ Round and homely, and looking flummoxed, it was Elsie. ‘Oh, Adam!’ Her first thought was for Lucy. ‘She’s not fallen over again, has she?’
‘No,’ he reassured her, ‘it’s nothing like that. She just wondered if you might be able to come back with me and help cook a meal and clear it up afterwards.’ Raising his eyebrows in intimate fashion, he explained, ‘She’s got a visitor – yon chappie from Far Crest Farm – and he seems to have taken a real shine to Mary, and—’
Before he could finish, she gave a knowing wink. ‘I see. And she wants me in the kitchen, so’s the two of them can spend some time together, is that it?’
He smiled with relief. ‘You know her almost as well as I do, Elsie, and yes, that’s the general idea.’
‘And does Mary know what her mother’s up to?’
‘Well, she doesn’t know I’ve been to fetch you, if that’s what you mean. She’s in the kitchen as we speak, preparing the evening meal. I tell you what though, Elsie, she does seem to get on very well with the fellow in question.’
Elsie was delighted. ‘In that case, how can I say no? Mary is a lovely young woman and deserves a good man to take care of her. Is this man a decent sort? Only I’ve not met him to speak to. We exchanged pleasantries as we passed in the lane once, but he didn’t linger, ’cause he was off on one of his long walks. Every morning come rain or shine, he’s away across the fields with that dog of his.’
From his chair by the fireside, Charlie had seen their lips moving but heard not a single word. ‘What’s he saying?’ he asked irritably. ‘What’s going on now?’
‘Nothing for you to worry about,’ his wife told him sharply. ‘I’m off to do an extra shift for Mrs Davidson, that’s all.’
‘Oh aye, I gathered that much. An’ how long will yer be?’
‘A couple of hours at the most, I reckon.’
He sat bolt upright in the chair. ‘Don’t forget to tell the buggers yer want double time!’
‘Lucy will give me that without asking,’ Elsie replied. ‘She’s a good woman.’
‘An’ what am I supposed to do while yer gone?’ The old smith looked like a sulky child.
Elsie chuckled at that. ‘You can do what you always do, whether I’m here or not.’
‘Oh aye, an’ what’s that?’
‘Hmh! As if you need telling. You can lie back and snore, or listen to the news on the wireless and swear at the bits you don’t care for. An’ if that fails, there’s always your precious crossword.’
He gave her a fond smile. ‘Cheeky bugger! Come ’ere an’ give us a kiss afore yer go.’
Adam thought this was all wonderful. The Langtons didn’t have much in the way of luxuries, but they were content, and obviously still in love after all their years together. It was what he wanted for him and Lucy. But it wouldn’t happen, and deep down he had always known that.
With the kiss deposited and her coat on ready to go, Elsie was almost at the front door when Charlie came after her. ‘I’ll get yer bike for yer, lass.’
‘No need, thank you, pet. I’m sure Adam will run me there, and fetch me back when I’m finished.’
‘Oh no, he won’t! I’m not ’aving that,’ her husband retorted. ‘I’m not letting every Tom Dick nor Harry run yer about. For all I know he might be a shocking driver. Like as not he’ll get yer killed. Then where would I be?’
‘Hey! I’m a good driver! I take Mrs Davidson and her daughter all over the place, as well you know.’
Charlie was having none of it. ‘I don’t give a bugger what yer get up to wi’ other folks. Yer not driving my Elsie, an’ that’s an end to it.’
Climbing down the steps, he hurried to where Elsie had leaned her bike against the wall on her return home earlier. Taking it by the handlebars, he walked it back to Elsie and thrust it at her. ‘For me, lass,’ he pleaded. ‘Do it for me, ’cause it would mek me feel content, to know yer were safe, on yer bike,’ he sneered at the black car, ‘’stead o’ being rattled about in that there ve’ickle.’
Put like that, Elsie could not refuse him. ‘The trouble with you, Charlie, is that you refuse to catch up with the times. All you know is horses and bicycles.’
‘Aye, an’ that’s all I need to know, an’ all!’ His parting words were for Adam and his shiny, new car. ‘’Orses will be ’ere long after then noisy damned things ’ave ’ad their day.’
‘All right, I’ll go on my bike,’ Elsie assured him. ‘Now you get back inside and put your feet up by the fire. I’ll not be long.’
With that she set off on her treasured steed through the chilly evening air, with Adam following in the car and feeling like a right fool; though he had to smile at what he thought was a comical situation.
THE FIRST MARY knew about the arrangement was when Elsie marched into the kitchen. ‘Right then, miss, you get off and see to your visitor while I crack on with the meal.’ She cast an experienced eye over the preparations. ‘Well now! You’ve already done the vegetables and got the meat sizzling away in the oven. There’s not all that much left for me to do, is there, bar serve it and clear it all away. I’ll make a nice drop of gravy, shall I?’
Caught unawares, Mary asked her, ‘This is Mother’s doing, isn’t it? She sent for you. Poor Elsie, I’m sorry for all the trouble you’ve been put to. Wouldn’t you rather be at home with your Charlie?’
‘No. I’d rather be here, cooking for you and earning double time, than listening to my old man snoring his head off.’
‘All right then,’ Mary conceded, ‘but only on one condition.’
‘Put a plateful out for yourself. There’ll be more than enough, and if there’s any left over, take it home to Charlie.’
‘I will, thank you.’
Mary gave her a hug. ‘Thank you, Elsie. I won’t forget this.’ Washing her hands and patting her hair, she asked the woman shyly, ‘Do I look respectable?’
‘You look lovely.’ Elsie had always thought Lucy’s daughter had something special. Though she wasn’t beautiful, she had a spark about her … soft, shining eyes of the loveliest shade, and a kind of warmth that endeared you to her. ‘Go on, miss … go and rescue your young man. I’ll have supper on the table in twenty minutes.’
Mary found Ben in the summerhouse. All the lights were on, and he was sitting in one of the easy chairs, deep in thought. ‘Hiding from my mother, are you?’ Her smile lit up the evening.
Having been miles away, reflecting on his disastrous marriage and the years he’d wasted, Ben was mortified. ‘What must you both think of me?’ he said. ‘I’m invited to supper and here I am, lounging in the summerhouse. I only meant to be a few minutes but lost track of time.’ On his feet now, he smiled down on her. ‘It’s your fault, you know.’
‘Oh, and why’s that?’ It was strange, Mary thought, how she felt as though she’d known him all her life.
He gestured towards the garden. ‘Your mother’s right. You’ve done wonders with the garden … it’s just beautiful. So many lovely hidden places.’ It wasn’t hard to imagine what a feast of life and colour it would be in the height of summer. ‘If you wanted to, you could lose yourself forever here.’
‘And do you want to lose yourself?’ Just now when she came upon him unexpectedly, she had seen the sadness in his eyes, and it touched her deeply.
It took a few seconds for him to answer. There was so much he could have told her, but that was all gone now, water under the bridge as they say. Besides, if he didn’t let go of the past, how could he ever have a future? Turning to her, he recalled, ‘It was you who said there are times when we all need to hide from the world.’
Her blue eyes shone with mischief. ‘And here was I, thinking you were hiding from Mother!’
He chuckled heartily. For a moment he studied her upturned face, the full plumpness of her lips, the small straight nose and smiling eyes, and he felt a rush of contentment. If he let himself go, he could love this woman, he thought. But if he let himself go, he could lose his heart and be hurt, again.
He looked towards the house. ‘Have you come to fetch me?’
She nodded her head. ‘Dinner will be ready soon.’
‘Do we still have a few minutes?’
She nodded her head again.
Taking her by the hand, he asked light-heartedly, ‘Would you care to join me?’ Leading her to the bench, he sat her down. ‘Welcome to Paradise.’
For a little while they sat and talked and laughed, and when she gave a long, trembling shiver, he dared to put his arm round her shoulders, and like Ben, she was afraid, of her feelings, and of the future.
Suddenly their private idyll was shattered, when a homely figure came rushing round the corner, calling out: ‘Supper’s ready. Your mammy says you’re to come in out of the cold.’ Elsie chuckled merrily. ‘I’m to tell you, she doesn’t mind you canoodling out here, but she doesn’t want you catching pneumonia, and if I can’t persuade you back into the house, she’ll be out here and she’ll chase you both inside with her walking stick. What’s more, I’ve made a big jug of creamy custard, and I’d like Mr Morris to enjoy my apple-pie while it’s hot. It’s a deep-dish pie, stuffed with best cooking apples and covered in pastry that’ll melt in your mouth. It’s only reheated, mind, but I made it fresh yesterday.’
Ben’s stomach rumbled. ‘Sounds wonderful.’
‘I’m not one for singing my own praises,’ Elsie declared self-righteously, ‘but I do make the best apple-pie in the whole of Bedfordshire, and woe betide them as says any different.’
The evening was a great success.
The pork chops were succulent, and the vegetables done to a turn, and just as she’d promised, Elsie’s apple-pie was the best Ben had ever tasted. Lucy had produced a bottle of wine and drank more than the others put together. She also did most of the talking. She told Ben about her hometown of Liverpool and got carried away with the memories – though there was one particular memory she did not divulge.
‘What did you love most about Liverpool?’ Ben asked, intrigued by her stories.
‘Oh, the docks, and the Mersey of course!’ Taking another sip of her red wine, Lucy savoured it for a moment, rolling it round her tongue and smacking her lips, like a dog after a bone.
Ben was ashamed to admit it, but he’d never seen the Mersey.
‘Maybe you’d think she was nothing out of the ordinary – just another river flowing away to the sea,’ Lucy speculated, ‘but to the ones who’ve lived and worked alongside her for most of their lives, she’s very special. She changes, y’see – from day to day she’s never the same. She has moods just like us … dark moods, quiet moods … and after a while you get to know her, and you can’t help but be affected, in a kind of magical way.’
She gave a long, nostalgic sigh. ‘If you’ve never seen the early morning Mersey when she’s covered in mist, or stood beside her when the moonlight dances on the water and brings it alive, then your life is sadly lacking.’
‘I can see I’ll have to take myself up there at the first opportunity,’ he said obediently.
‘Quite right!’ Lucy applauded. ‘Make sure you do!’
While Lucy and Ben chatted, Mary thought it amazing how well they got on together. But then, right from the start, she had felt comfortable with him. Maybe it was because he was older than her? Ben was so easy and natural, it would be hard not to feel at home in his company.
‘Do you mind if I ask you something?’ With her engaging manner and interesting tales, Lucy had commandeered him, though he hoped that he and Mary would make up for lost time together later.
‘Go ahead, young man. Ask away.’
‘Well, I was just thinking … if you were so happy in Liverpool, why would you ever want to leave?’
Suddenly the air was thick with silence, and Ben immediately wished he had never asked. But then his hostess answered and her manner was curiously sombre. ‘Life sometimes gives us problems that we aren’t equipped to deal with. So we run away … like the cowards we are.’
Ben was mortified. ‘Oh look, I’m sorry. I seem to have opened up old wounds.’ She had that same look about her that he had seen in the churchyard; a look of resignation, a sadness that was almost tangible.
Lucy, too, was mortified, for she had let them both see through her armour, and now she was afraid. ‘It’s all right,’ she assured him hurriedly. ‘I did love Liverpool. I still do, but I can’t go back.’ Her voice stiffened. ‘I could never go back.’
Mary had never heard her mother talk in that way, and it worried her. From a child, she had known there was something in her mother’s past that played strongly on her mind. Her own memories were unreliable; her early childhood often seemed tantalisingly out of reach. With Ben having opened a door to which she herself had never had access, secrets might come out and at last she would know what it was that haunted her mother so.
Turning to Ben she confessed, ‘You’re not the only one never to have seen the Mersey. I was born in Liverpool yet I can’t recall anything about it.’ She glanced at Lucy. ‘Time and again, I’ve offered to go back with Mother, but we never have, and now I’m beginning to think we never will.’
Lucy smiled. ‘Oh, you’ll see Liverpool,’ she promised. ‘Maybe not with me, but you’ll go down the Mersey and know the wonder that I knew as a young woman. Curiosity will get the better of you and one day, you will go back, I’m sure of it.’
Mary asked her outright. ‘And if I really wanted you to come with me, would you?’
Lucy shook her head. ‘No.’
‘Why not?’ In spite of her mother’s emphatic answer, Mary felt she might yet uncover the truth; until her hopes were dashed with Lucy’s firm reply.
‘Because I’m too old now. Travelling tires me, as you well know.’ She laughed as she told Ben, ‘We went to London on the train. Dear me! What a trial. All that climbing in and out, up and down. You wouldn’t believe the traffic in the streets there, and folks rushing about as though it was the end of the world … It was all too much for me.’ Sighing, she finished, ‘No, my travelling days are well and truly at an end.’
With dinner over, they retired to the cosy sitting room. Here, although the hour was growing late, they chatted on; among other things they talked of the introduction in America of the first colour television. ‘The mind boggles!’ Lucy declared. ‘Colour television, indeed! Whatever next?’ She herself thought the wireless was sufficient – why would you need one of those big, ugly television sets?
Mostly they talked about the grave illness of King George. ‘He has been a good King,’ Ben said. ‘He’ll be sadly missed.’
Mary had her say and it was this. ‘You’re right. He will be missed, but his daughter Elizabeth will make a wonderful Queen.’ And without hesitation, the other two readily agreed.
‘Right!’ After tapping on the door, Elsie showed her face. ‘I’ll be off now. I’ve washed the dinner things and cleared them away. I’ll see you in the morning.’
‘Thank you, Elsie.’ Lucy was fond of that dear woman. ‘Off you go and put your feet up.’
Elsie chuckled. ‘Hmh! Chance would be a fine thing.’
Mary excused herself and saw Elsie out. When she returned to the sitting room, she saw how tired her mother seemed. ‘I think it’s time you went to bed,’ she said affectionately.
‘Nonsense!’ Lucy was bone-tired, though she would never admit it. ‘I’m getting to know our new friend,’ she said. ‘The more I learn about him, the more I like him.’
Ben laughed. ‘I’m flattered,’ he told her, ‘but I have to agree with your daughter, and then there’s that business of you falling and hurting yourself in the churchyard. It’s been a long, heavy day and no one would blame you if you wanted to rest now.’
He had noticed how every now and then she would close her eyes and relax into the chair, and occasionally she would fitfully rub her hands together, as though fighting some inner demon.
‘I see!’ Looking from one to the other, Lucy smiled wickedly. ‘Trying to get rid of the old biddy so the two of you can be alone – is that it?’ Mary smiled, but in fact, she had been concerned about her mother these past months. She seemed to have grown frail, and less mobile, though she would not hear of seeing a specialist.
Changing the subject completely, Lucy told Mary, ‘I think I’m ready for a nice cup of tea. What about you, Ben?’
‘Sounds good to me, thank you,’ he said, swallowing a yawn. It was high time he was in bed, too. The animals would be waiting to be fed at dawn.
‘Go on, then! Get the kettle on, Mary, before we all die of thirst, and don’t bring the teapot, there’s a good girl … too much fuss and ceremony. Just pour three cups, that’ll do.’
Frustrated at her mother’s insistence on referring to her as ‘child’ or ‘girl’, Mary groaned. ‘All right, Mother, I’m on my way.’ Turning to Ben she confirmed, ‘One sugar and a little milk, isn’t it?’ She had remembered when Elsie brought him tea earlier.
‘That’s it, yes. Thank you.’ He was surprised and pleased that she’d remembered.
‘There you are!’ Lucy chipped in. ‘Already she knows how you like your tea. That’s the sign of a good wife, wouldn’t you say, Ben?’
‘I’d say your daughter has a good memory,’ he answered, and that was as far as he would go.
No sooner had Mary departed for the kitchen than Lucy was quizzing him again. ‘You do like her, don’t you?’
He had got used to her directness and thought it refreshing, but now and then she would ask a question that took him off guard. ‘I do like her, yes.’ What else could he say, when he had been drawn to Mary as to no other woman since his divorce.
Lucy seemed to be reading his thoughts. ‘I know I can be impertinent, and I know what you must think of me, but I do worry for my daughter, and when I see how well the two of you get on, I can’t help but wonder if she’s found her man at last …’ Her voice trailed away and her eyes slowly closed.
For a moment Ben thought she had fallen asleep, but then she suddenly straightened herself up in the chair and asked him another question. ‘Do you think you’ll ever get back with your ex-wife?’
Ben shook his head. ‘It was a long and messy business, and now it’s over, and so is our relationship.’
‘And the girl?’
‘You mean Abbie, my daughter?’
‘Yes. How does she feel about you and her mother splitting up?’
To Ben, the question was like a stab below the belt, but he answered it all the same. ‘It was hard for her – hard for all of us. In the end it was all for the best.’
‘And is she an only child?’
‘She is, yes.’
‘Would you like more children?’
Ben smiled, a long, lazy smile. ‘You mean, if I ever got married again?’
Lucy nodded. ‘Of course! When you and Mary get married, I want a whole horde of grandchildren.’ She grew wistful. ‘A boy, especially. It would be wonderful to cuddle a little boy.’
At that moment, Mary returned with the tray. ‘Here we are!’ Setting it on the coffee-table, she handed each of them a mug and pointed to the plate of chocolate slices. ‘Help yourselves,’ she told them.
Over the next half-hour, the conversation centred on Ben and his farming.
‘So you’ve found a new way of life, is that it?’ Lucy was ever inquisitive.
‘It’s certainly a very different world from the one I knew,’ Ben answered. ‘As you said yourself, London is busy and demanding. I used to get up at seven, struggle into the office …’ He had expected her to interrupt, and she did.
‘What work did you do?’
‘I’m an architect by trade.’
Lucy was impressed. ‘And were you good at it?’
‘Yes – or so I’m told.’
‘And was it your own business?’
‘It was, but I eventually went back to work for the local council in my home town.’
‘Mmm.’ She glanced at Mary, who was trying desperately to bring that particular conversation to a halt. ‘So you’re not short of a bob or two then?’
‘Mother, please! No more questions, or I’m sure Ben will never want to set foot in this house ever again.’
Lucy addressed Ben. ‘Have you had enough of my questions?’
He gave her a half-smile. ‘Look, I’ll make you a deal. I’ll tell you all I think you should know, and then there’ll be no more need of questions.’
Lucy agreed. ‘So, you were saying … you got up at seven and struggled into work.’
‘That’s right. Then I worked until eight or nine at night and struggled home again.’
‘Hmh! It’s no wonder your marriage broke up.’
‘MOTHER!’ Mary gave her a warning glance.
Lucy closed her mouth and listened.
Curiously relieved that he was finding it easier to talk about his troubles, Ben went on, ‘One night I got home and found my wife in bed with my ex-partner, Peter. Apparently they’d been having an affair for almost a year.’ He gave a sad little smile. ‘So, you could be right. Working all those hours probably was the reason for my marriage break-up.’
Lucy couldn’t help but make a comment. ‘I hope you leathered him good and proper?’
‘Oh, I was tempted, but it would have solved nothing. My wife wanted out, and I said yes.’ Dropping his gaze to the floor he said in a small voice, ‘I think the love had long gone, on both sides. By the way, you were right, Lucy. I am worth a bob or two. But that means little when your whole life has been turned upside down. I didn’t want to stay in London, so I packed a few things and set off. I looked far and wide before I found this lovely part of the world, and now I’m settled and content.’
He laughed. ‘I’m a farmer and proud of it. These days I’m up in the fields checking my sheep at five in the morning, and often fall into bed just before midnight, but I’ve never been happier in my whole life.’
He paused to reflect before ending light-heartedly, ‘So there you are!’ He smiled. ‘I hope that’s told you enough to be going on with?’
His hostess gave a long, contented sigh. ‘Even I am satisfied with that,’ she said. ‘Thank you, lad. It’s been a lovely day today, all due to our having met you. And now, I really must go up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire!’
IT WAS STRIKING eleven when Lucy announced she was ready for her bed. As she got out of her chair, Mary handed her the walking stick and Ben hurried to open the drawing-room door for her. ‘I’ll take you up, Mother,’ Mary offered.
‘No, you won’t!’ Waving her stick at Mary, she ordered, ‘You stay here with Ben. I’m perfectly capable of taking myself up the stairs to bed without your help.’
Knowing how stubborn her mother could be, Mary did not argue, but walked on with her to the bottom of the stairs. ‘Leave me be, lass!’ Lucy was growing agitated. ‘Don’t make me out to be a useless old biddy who can’t even climb a few stairs.’
In fact, if truth be told, Lucy was beginning to feel the worse for wear. The wine, and the long evening, and her fall in the churchyard, had all caught up with her. Halfway up the stairs, she suddenly took a dizzy spell; aware that the two of them were watching from the foot of the stairs, she clung onto the banister and braved it out. ‘Go on, be off with you!’ she complained impatiently. ‘You’re making me nervous.’
Regaining her composure, she set off again, but when the dizziness returned with a vengeance, it seemed as though the treads were moving beneath her feet and the whole flight of stairs was spinning round. As she felt herself falling, she could only think of Barney … and them.
Mary’s voice lifted her senses. ‘It’s all right, Mother, I’m here.’ She had run up the stairs to catch Lucy’s crumpling figure. For a moment, she staggered; her mother a dead weight in her arms.
Mary was glad to let Ben take over. Sweeping Lucy into his arms, he followed Mary’s directions and took Lucy straight into her bedroom, where he laid her on the bed.
‘Please, Ben, run and tell Adam what’s happened, will you? He lives in the cottage at the side of the house – you can’t miss it.’ Mary wondered how she could sound so calm, when her insides were in turmoil.
By this time Lucy was shifting in and out of consciousness.
‘Tell him what’s happened,’ the girl said. ‘He’ll know what to do.’ Lately, she and Adam had been so worried about Lucy that they were ready for any event.
Startling them both, Lucy took hold of Mary’s cuff. ‘No ambulance … no doctor,’ she pleaded. ‘Promise me!’ And she was so agitated, Mary could do no other than promise.
In a quiet voice so her mother would not hear, Mary spoke to Ben. ‘Tell Adam … no ambulance, but he’s to fetch Dr Nolan as quick as he can.’
Ben was already across the room. ‘Don’t worry.’ Though from the pallor of Lucy’s skin and the laboured breathing, he knew Mary had cause to be anxious.
Although it was midnight now, and the whole village was asleep, Adam was still up and dressed. On hearing the news, the little man was beside himself with worry. ‘I knew something like this would happen,’ he said as he bolted out of the door. ‘I could see it coming, but like the stubborn devil she is, she would never admit she was ill.’
Climbing into the big black car, he asked of Ben, ‘Go back to Mary. Tell her I’ll be as quick as I can.’
He was as good as his word. No sooner had Ben returned to the house where Mary had got Lucy into bed and was now bathing her face with cool water than Adam came rushing in with the doctor in tow.
Somewhat revived, Lucy was determined to fight him off. ‘I told you, I don’t need a doctor. GET AWAY FROM ME!’
Dr Nolan was equally adamant. ‘You won’t get rid of me so easily this time, Lucy.’ Having suffered her temper once or twice before, he had finally learned how to handle her.
Turning to Adam and Mary, he told them, ‘She might co-operate more readily if you were to wait downstairs.’
Reluctantly they did as he asked, and as they went they could hear Lucy ordering him out of the house. ‘Just leave me be! I’m not ill!’
The pair lingered on the stairs. ‘Sounds like she’s getting her second wind,’ Adam joked, then glanced at Mary, his eyes swimming with tears. ‘Do you think she’ll be all right?’ he asked the dear girl beside him, his voice choked.
The little man had never been afraid of anything, but losing Lucy filled him with terror. For the past twenty years and more, he had seen life through her eyes, laughed with her, cried with her, and through it all, he had loved her from afar.
The ironic thing was, in the same way that he had loved her, Lucy had loved Barney. Yet Adam consoled himself with the belief that she had a different, special kind of love for him. It was that which kept him close to her, and always would.
‘I hope so.’ Mary’s thoughts were on a par with his. She felt sick to her stomach. ‘She’s fought with poor Dr Nolan before and sent him packing,’ she reminded him, crying even as she joked. ‘But this time, he’s as worried about her as we are.’
Each wondering what the outcome of this night would be, they continued down the stairs in silence.
They were still silent and sombre as they came into the drawing room. ‘How is she?’ Ben had not known Lucy long, but already she had won a place in his heart.
‘We’ll know soon enough,’ Mary said quietly. She lingered at the door, her eyes searching the upper levels. Dear God, let her be all right, she prayed. Don’t take her from me yet. Somewhere in the back of her mind she had always known there would come a day when she would lose the light of her life. But not yet, dear Lord. Not for many a year to come.
The waiting seemed to go on forever, until at last the doctor walked briskly into the room. ‘She’s sleeping now,’ he told them all. ‘I’ve given her a sedative.’ His long thin face broke into a weary smile. ‘She’s hard work,’ he said, ‘but I got the better of her in the end.’
‘What’s wrong with her?’ Mary cared nothing for his smile.
The smile fading, he took a moment to consider his answer. ‘I can’t be sure … I’d like to take a blood sample and have some tests done in the hospital labs.’
‘What sort of tests?’
‘Well,’ he answered cautiously, ‘she’s unusually tired, and complaining of breathlessness: this could point to anaemia. She seems to have little strength.’ The smile crept back again. ‘Though she did manage to fight me off once or twice.’
Knowing how all three of them were hanging on his every word, he continued on a more serious note, ‘I’m a little concerned about her heart and blood pressure, but I can’t be sure about anything until we do those tests. For that I’ll need her to come into hospital overnight.’
At the mention of hospital, Adam turned pale. ‘But she will be all right, won’t she?’
Careful how he answered, Dr Nolan momentarily lowered his gaze. Lucy Davidson was a legend in this hamlet; despite her reclusive nature, she had made many friends and as far as he knew, no enemies. She was generous, funny, honest and outspoken, and he understood why these good people should be so concerned. However, at the moment, he could only make a guess at her underlying condition. She was ill, though. There was no denying that.
‘Had she not worked herself into a state, I would have admitted her to hospital tonight,’ he said. ‘As it is, and because she’s calmer now, there’ll be nothing lost if we leave her till morning. She needs plenty of rest. Let her sleep, that’s the best medicine for now. I’ll be back first thing.’
‘But will she be all right?’ Like Adam, Mary was desperately seeking reassurance.
‘We can only wait and see.’ He chose his words wisely. ‘I would rather not speculate, though I won’t deny that your mother is ill,’ he said kindly. ‘She’s very weak and, as you saw for yourself, her breathing was laboured.’
Before they could question him further, he put up a staying hand. ‘Once we get her into hospital, we’ll know more.’
As he left, he said, ‘You may look in on her, of course … I would want you to do that. But she must not be disturbed. Rest is the best thing for her just now.’
With the doctor gone, the mood was solemn. Ben felt as though he was intruding, but when he suggested leaving, Mary persuaded him to stay awhile. ‘I’ll go and check on Mother. Adam can put the kettle on, if he doesn’t mind?’ The little man nodded his agreement and set off for the kitchen. Mary then turned to address Ben. ‘We can all keep each other company for a while, unless you really want to leave?’
She thought of how he had come here to Knudsden House in good faith, to return her mother’s bag, and had been quizzed relentlessly about his personal life; on top of that he had been made to think he was duty bound to ask her out one evening. Any other man would have been long gone, but she truly hoped he would stay; his presence gave her so much comfort.
‘I’ll stay as long as you like.’ Ben did not hesitate. ‘There’s nothing urgent waiting at home.’ He had only offered to leave out of consideration, and was delighted that she felt need of him.
‘I won’t be long.’ While Ben went to join Adam in the kitchen, Mary ran upstairs and crept into her mother’s bedroom. She gazed down on Lucy’s sleeping face. In the gentle light from the bedside lamp, her mother looked so much younger; her skin was clear and smooth as alabaster, and her lashes lay like spiders’ legs over the slight curve of her cheeks. Her long hair was loose about her shoulders and her wide, pretty mouth was ever so slightly turned up at the corners as in a half-smile.
Reaching down, Mary laid her own hand over that of her mother. She could feel the warm softness of her skin, and beneath the tip of her fingers, the blood running through Lucy’s veins. Holding hands was not something she and her mother did all that often, so she felt privileged, and oddly humbled.
Choking back the emotion, she slid her mother’s hand beneath the sheets and covered it over. She then stroked her fingers through the long greying strands of hair where they lay nestled on the pillow like silken threads; so soft in her fingers.
She gazed long on Lucy’s face, her eyes following every feature, every shadow and shape, and all the while she wondered about her mother, and about her father. What had transpired before she was born? What was the secret that she had always known existed? And why had she never been told of her parents’ true past?
Her heart turning with emotion and the questions burning bright in her mind, she kissed the sleeping woman and made her way back downstairs to the men. Adam had brewed the tea and was busy pouring it out. ‘She’s sleeping well,’ Mary told them, gratefully accepting the cup that was handed to her. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever seen her looking so peaceful.’
‘Thank God for that.’ Adam knew what a restless soul Lucy was, and unlike Mary he knew the reason why. ‘It will do her the world of good to sleep through the night.’ His voice fell until it was almost inaudible. ‘If she’s in a deep sleep, maybe she won’t be plagued by the bad dreams.’
‘What bad dreams?’ Mary had heard his quiet words and they bothered her. ‘Mother never told me about any dreams.’
Silently cursing himself, the little man tried to dismiss his remark. ‘Oh, it’s nothing,’ he lied. ‘I recall how she once told me she’d had a bad dream, that’s all.’
Mary wasn’t satisfied. ‘You said she was plagued. That doesn’t sound like one bad dream to me.’ She knew Adam had known her parents long before she was born, and now she realised he was part of the secret she had never been privileged to share. ‘Is there something you’re not telling me?’
Sensing something too deep for his understanding, Ben wisely changed the subject. ‘The fire’s almost out. Shall I put more logs on?’
Relieved that the moment was broken, Adam turned to him. ‘I think it might be a good idea,’ he said, and to Mary, ‘if that’s all right with you?’
Having believed that she was on the verge of a long-awaited peep into the past, Mary now felt cheated. ‘Yes,’ she answered, ‘best keep the fire alive. I for one won’t be going to bed tonight.’
Adam was horrified. ‘You must get your sleep,’ he told her. ‘I’ll stay here and keep a check on your mother. I promise to wake you if needs be.’
Mary looked at Ben. A man of few words, he had such quiet strength. ‘Will you stay?’
He smiled on her, a slow, easy smile that filled her heart and made her feel safe. ‘Of course. Adam’s right, though. Your mother will need you to be bright and alert tomorrow. You’ll sleep better in your bed.’
Mary would not hear of it. ‘I’m staying here with you two. Three pairs of ears are better than one, and we can take it in turns to check in on her. Look – there are two big sofas and a deep armchair. We can all snatch a moment’s sleep when we grow tired.’
She smiled from one to the other. ‘Meanwhile, we’ll drink our tea and talk.’ She paused. ‘The time will soon pass.’
While Ben and Mary sipped their tea and chatted about things other than the one which pressed on their minds, Adam became increasingly agitated. By referring to Lucy’s nightmares, he had almost betrayed his long-held loyalty to her. ‘Mary must never know … promise me you won’t ever tell.’ That had been Lucy’s request to him, and though he had done everything possible for the woman he cherished, he had managed to avoid making an actual promise not to tell.
Somewhere deep in his soul, he truly believed that one day, Mary would have to know the truth of what had happened; not least because she herself was part of that fascinating, devastating story, for without it, she would never have been born.
Discreetly watching him, Mary saw how Adam was pacing the floor, faster and faster, until it seemed he would go crazy. She saw the panic in his face and the way he was rolling his fists together, much like her own mother did when anxious. And she knew, without a shadow of doubt, that old secrets were tearing Adam and her mother apart.
While she watched him, Ben was watching her. And just as she had seen the anguish and pain in Adam’s eyes, he saw the very same in hers. Without a word he took her hand in his and, when she swung her gaze to him, he stroked her face, fleetingly. ‘Your mother will be fine,’ he whispered. ‘You have to believe that.’
Mary acknowledged him with an unsure nod of the head. She wanted him to hold her, and kiss her, and be the safe haven she craved; for in that moment she had never felt so alone in the whole of her life.
Suddenly, Adam was standing before them. ‘I thought I heard a noise – I’m sure it came from upstairs. Please, lass … will you check on your mother again? See if she’s all right?’
Mary didn’t need asking twice. She was on her feet and out of the room before he’d finished speaking. While she was running up the stairs, Ben grew concerned for Adam. Taking the little man by the shoulders, he sat him in the armchair. ‘Here, sit down … before you fall down.’ And when Adam was seated, head low in his hands and his whole body trembling, Ben dashed off to the kitchen and brought him back a glass of water. ‘Drink this … it’ll help calm you.’
By the time Adam had swilled down every last drop of the cool water, Mary had returned. ‘Mother is fast asleep,’ she told them. ‘She hasn’t moved, except to pull down the covers a little.’ Lucy never did like being too warm, even in her sleep.
Adam grabbed her hand. ‘Are you sure she’s all right?’
‘Yes, I’m sure.’ Mary squeezed his hand comfortingly. ‘Like the doctor said … she’s sleeping soundly.’
And then Adam was weeping, quietly at first, until the sobs racked his body, and when he looked up at them he was like a man haunted. ‘I couldn’t bear it if anything happened to your mam,’ he said brokenly. ‘I love her, d’you see? I have loved her for a long, long time … and always will till the day I die, and even after that.’
Mary sat on the edge of the sofa, opposite Adam and next to Ben, but she did not let go of Adam’s hand.
‘Do you think I don’t know how much you love her?’ she asked tenderly. ‘I’ve known it since I was very small. I’ve seen the way you look at her, and I’ve heard you whisper her name … talking to her when you thought she couldn’t hear. But I heard, and I know how much you adore her.’
She had a question. ‘Why did she not love you back in the same way?’
Adam was curiously hurt by her question, though he understood it well enough. ‘She did love me … she still does!’
‘Yes, I know that, but why did she not love you in the same way?’
He smiled painfully at that, a sad, lonely smile that made her feel guilty. ‘We can’t always choose whom we love,’ he answered wisely. ‘I didn’t choose to fall head over heels in love with Lucy, any more than she chose to fall head over heels in love with your daddy.’
He gave a long, rippling sigh. ‘And who could blame her for that? Y’see, Barney Davidson was a very special man. Not because he was handsome or rich, or even because he was exceptional in ways we mere mortals might understand.’ His eyes shone with admiration. ‘No! He was more than that. He was deep, and kind …’ Hesitating, he gave a shrug. ‘Sometimes, words alone can never describe someone.’
‘Please, Adam, will you try to describe him for me? No one ever talks about him.’
Adam was shocked to see the tears running down her face and once again, was tempted to tell her everything. ‘You never knew him, did you, lass – not really?’ he murmured. ‘You were only a wee thing when we lost him. He was my dear, dear friend … the best pal a man could ever have, and I loved him for it.’
Afraid of losing the moment again, Mary persisted. ‘Please, tell me what you know, what you and Mother have always kept from me.’ Her voice broke. ‘I will never rest until I know what happened, and don’t tell me there was nothing untoward in my parents’ lives, because in here …’ she tapped the cradle of her heart ‘… I know there was.’
Deeply moved, he looked into those lovely, tearful eyes. ‘Your mother should never have kept it from you,’ he conceded gruffly. ‘I’ve always known she was wrong about that. I told her you had every right to know, that you were Barney’s child through and through. But she was afraid … always afraid.’
‘Afraid of what?’ Mary gave a sigh of relief. At last she was getting nearer to the truth.
‘I can’t tell.’ He looked from her to Ben. ‘I made a promise. NO!’ He shook his head. ‘I never did make that promise. I thought it would be wrong, d’you see? I told her, “Mary will have to know everything one day” …’ His words trailed away.
‘Adam?’ The girl’s voice penetrated his deeper thoughts. ‘That day is here and now. And you’re right: I have to know, so tell me … please.’
Snatching his hand from her grip, Adam scrambled out of the chair. He paced the floor awhile, then took a moment to stare out of the window at the night, but he said nothing for what seemed an age. Then he walked to the door, opened it and went out, and from the room they could see him standing at the foot of the stairs looking up. His lips were moving, but they could not hear what he was saying.
Mary went to get off the sofa, but Ben reached out and, with a gentle pressure of his hand, held her there. ‘Best to leave him,’ he whispered. ‘Give him time.’ And, knowing Ben was right, she remained still until the little fellow came back into the room.
Upstairs, Lucy thought she heard something. A voice. His voice. Half-asleep, her brain numbed by the sedative, she called out his name. ‘Barney!’ Her voice, and her heart broke, and she could speak no more.
Restless as always, she turned. Forcing open her eyes, and summoning every last ounce of strength, she stretched out her hand, and felt the hard edge of the bedside drawer … Inching it open, she took out a long metal biscuit-box and drew it to her chest, where it lay while she caught her breath and recovered her strength.
A moment later she had opened the lid and dipping her fingers inside, she lifted out a photograph and a long envelope, yellow with age and worn at the corners from where she had opened it many times over the years.
Holding the photograph close to the halo of light from the bedside lamp, Lucy could hardly see it for the tears that stung from her eyes and ran unheeded down her face. ‘Oh Barney, dear Barney!’ The sobbing was velvet-soft. No one heard. No one knew. No one ever knew.
For nearly twenty years, she had kept his face alive in her heart and soul, but now, as her senses swam from the effects of the sedative, when she saw him smiling up at her from the photograph, it was as though he was real: the slight film of moisture on his lips, the pinkness of his tongue, just visible behind those beautiful white teeth, and the eyes, soulfully blue, and so sad beneath the smile; yet the smile, and the eyes, were so alive they twinkled.
It was almost as though Barney was here in the room with her.
The sick woman took a moment to rest, before in a less emotional state, she studied the familiar and much-loved features: the shock of rich brown hair, those mesmerising blue eyes – not lavender-blue like Mary’s, but darkest blue, like the ocean depths. And the mouth, with its full bottom lip. The wonderful smile was a reflection of Barney’s naturally joyful soul; through good times and bad, his smile was like a ray of sunshine.
As he smiled at her now, Lucy could hear him singing; Barney loved to sing when he worked. She could hear him so clearly, his voice lifted in song and carried on the breeze from the fields to her kitchen. He never sang any song in particular. And when he wasn’t singing, he would whistle.
Barney was one of those rare people who, without realising it, could raise your spirits and make you feel good; even at your lowest ebb.
Lucy’s heart grew quiet. Times had come when Barney’s song was not so lilting nor his smile quite so convincing, and there had been other times, though they were few, when she had caught him sobbing his heart out. She knew then, that he was thinking of past events. And with every moment of anguish he suffered, she suffered it with him, and her love grew all the stronger.
Over their short time together, Barney became her very life. He was her and she was him. They were one. Together they would see it through, and nothing would ever tear them apart. But it did. Death claimed him much too soon!
And when she lost him, her own life, too, would have been over but for Mary, and Mary was a part of Barney. She saw him every time Mary smiled or sang, or chided her.
And she loved that dear child with the same all-consuming love that she had felt for Barney. It was Mary who had been her saviour; Mary who was like her daddy in so many ways; Mary who had brought her untold joy.
Adam had long believed that Mary should be told about the events which took place before she was born. But Lucy thought differently. The little girl was an innocent and must be protected, and so she was never told.
But what of the other innocents? Dear God above!
WHAT OF THEM?
Weary now, she dropped her hands and the photograph fell onto the eiderdown. Too weak to raise her head, she felt about until it was safe in her grasp again, and then with slow, trembling fingers, she laid it down beside her.
Unfolding the letter from inside the envelope, she held it up where she could see it in the light from the bedside lamp. She remembered receiving this, one dark damp day in her little cottage up north, and knew that only the truth could put things right. She had read the letter so many times, she knew every word by heart. She whispered them now, the sentences etched in her soul for all time:
To Lucy Baker,
It pains us to put pen to paper, but we must. Word has come to us here that you are now living with our father and have a child by him. Because of what you have done, we feel only hatred towards you. Hatred and disgust! Lucy, you betrayed us! We thought you were our friend, our sister. We all trusted you, especially our mother, but you were a viper in our midst.
The day we left, we vowed we would never be back, and that vow remains strong as ever. We just want you to know what you and our father have done to all of us; and to our mother most of all.
You helped to ruin our lives. You are a wicked, evil woman, and if there is any justice in the world, there will come a day when you will both pay for what you did. We pray with all our hearts for that day to come.
We don’t need to sign our names. You know them already.
We are Thomas, Ronald and Susan Davidson.
We are your conscience.
Lucy shakily folded the letter away. ‘Such hatred!’ she sighed. Her heart ached for those young people … for them and their poor mother, because of all their suffering. But they didn’t know the truth. THEY DIDN’T KNOW! How could they?
Carefully, she replaced Barney’s photograph into the biscuit-box, then the letter into its envelope. ‘What am I to do, love?’ she whispered. ‘You said they must never know, but I feel I must tell them, even if it will be too much for them to bear. It is time to put things right, if God will grant me the time I need.’
Then weariness closed in and the sedative claimed her. But the dreams remained. Awake or asleep, the dreams were never far away.
Adam went over to the fireplace and stood there for a while, his arms reaching up to each side of the mantelpiece, and his head bowed. ‘I’m not sure if it’s my place to tell you,’ he murmured.
Mary felt instinctively that she ought not to speak. If he was wrestling with his conscience, then she must not influence him either way. So she waited, and hoped, and in a while he turned round, looked at them both, and slowly made his way back to them. ‘I think Barney would want you to know,’ he told Mary heavily. ‘I reckon you’re right, lass, the time is here.’ The haunted look had finally left his eyes.
‘So, will you tell me now?’ Her mouth had gone dry; she could barely say the words.
‘And will you tell me everything?’
Mary knew this was it. At long last she was to cross that threshold which, though it had never affected the deep love between herself and Lucy, had always been present between them. Excitement and fear mingled as she sensed the door opening to her, that secret door which had been too long closed, and she had no doubts that something wondrous waited beyond.
‘I don’t know if I’m doing right or wrong, but I believe the truth is long overdue,’ Adam answered. ‘Though I may live to regret it, and Lucy may not thank me for going against her wishes, yes, I’ll tell you everything, sweetheart. I promise I won’t leave anything out.’
Ben hastily prepared to leave. ‘This is private family business,’ he said. ‘I have no right to be here.’
Neither Adam nor Mary would hear of it. ‘Please, Ben, I want you to stay,’ Mary told him, and Adam gave a nod of approval. ‘I believe you should both hear what I have to tell,’ he said.
The little man had a deep-down instinct that these two were made for each other. In the same inevitable way that Barney was woven into Mary’s past, Ben was destined to be part of her future. He had seen her look at Ben in the same way her mother had looked at Barney, and tonight in Ben, he had caught a glimpse of his dear friend. Something told him he was witnessing the start of another deep and special love, and he knew that Ben truly belonged here.
And so he settled in his chair and cast his mind back over the years. Drawing on his memory, he mentally relived the story; of Lucy and Barney, and of course the others who did not, and could not, see the truth of what was happening before their eyes.
But Adam had seen, and it had scarred him forever. Just as it had scarred Lucy, and the others; though to this day, those others had not learned the truth of what happened, and maybe they never would. Maybe the hatred and the pain would always be paramount.
Adam thought that was a sad thing, because the tragedy that had taken place all those years ago had given birth to something glorious.
As the night thickened and the story unfolded, Mary and Ben were in turn shocked and uplifted, and the more they heard, the more they began to realise that their lives would never again be the same.
During the telling, Adam was at times joyful, then tearful, and when he recalled the awful sacrifice Barney had made, his eyes filled with pain. But above all, he was proud to be telling Barney’s story.
Because, in his deepest heart, he believed it to be one of the most powerful love stories of all time.
Summer, 1930 Lucy’s Story
THE SUMMER OF 1930 was proving to be one of the most glorious on record, as if to compensate in some way for the misery of mass unemployment on Merseyside. Today, 25 May, the docklands were almost deserted but the narrow, meandering backstreets were as busy as ever. Young children played; scabby dogs lounged in cool, shadowy corners; floral-pinnied women in turbans busied themselves white-stoning their front doorsteps, pausing only for a snippet of gossip as a neighbour passed by; and having emptied gallons of milk from churn to jug, the milkman was on his lazy way home, the wheels of his cart clattering a tune on the cobbles … clickety-clack, clickety clack, drink your milk and I’ll be back … the children made up the song and as he passed by, they ran after him chanting the words, skipping away once he’d turned the corner.
Back down in the docks, sailors disembarked, glad to come ashore after being at sea for many months. Placards everywhere gave out the news: British Aviator Amy Johnson flies from London to Australia in nineteen and a half days.
‘There you go, boyo.’ The tall, bony man with the unkempt beard had been at sea for too long, and now at last, he was done with it. ‘While we’ve been conquering the seven seas, that brave lady’s been conquering the skies.’
‘Hmh!’ The younger man was rough in looks and rough in nature. ‘I’d rather her than me, up there all alone. I never have been able to stand my own company.’
The older man laughed. ‘That’s because you’re a miserable bugger, and I should know, being the unfortunate that had the next bunk to you.’
‘What d’you mean? We got on all right, didn’t we?’
‘That’s true – but only because when you’re on a ship in the middle of the ocean, you’ve either to get on with your shipmates, or jump off the ship. And I for one didn’t fancy being the sharks’ next meal.’
‘So where are you off to now?’
‘Home to South Wales, thank God. What about you? Where might you be headed?’
A crafty smile flickered over the younger man’s features. ‘I’ve a woman to see.’
‘A woman, eh?’ The other man knew of Edward Trent’s liking for the ladies, because he’d witnessed it many a time in port. ‘So, she’s another one you left behind, is she?’
‘Whether I left her behind or not, she’ll still be waiting for me.’
‘You’re an arrogant devil, I’ll give you that.’
‘I might stay this time … make an honest woman of her,’ Trent boasted.
The older man laughed out loud at the idea. ‘Never!’
‘Ah, but this one’s different. She’s full of fun, a real stunner. Moreover, she’ll do anything for me.’ He preened himself. ‘A man could do worse than settle down with a woman like Lucy Baker.’
‘Well, good luck to you then, boyo. As for me, I’m away to my beloved Wales. No more sailing the world’s oceans for me. I’m finished with all that.’
‘So, what will you do? There’s mass unemployment, you know. It may not be much of a picnic in your part of the world, matey.’
‘That won’t bother me.’ The older man took a deep, gratifying breath, and when he released it, the answer came with it. ‘I’ve not made up my mind yet, but what I do know is this: I’ll spend my days as I please, tending my bit of land and fishing, and not be driven by money and command. I’ve worked hard and saved my wages, and God willing, you’ll not see me again.’ With that he threw his kitbag over his shoulder and strode off, with never a look back.
Watching him go, the other man laughed under his breath. ‘That’s what they all say,’ he sneered, ‘and you’re no different from the rest.’ Dark-haired, dark-eyed and with a heart to match, Edward Trent was a regular Jack the Lad who fancied he should please every woman he came across, and he had done just that, in every port across the world.
We’re both going fishing, he thought as he walked on. I’ll leave you to catch the ones with the tails, Taffy Evans, while I settle for the others – the ones that pretend to fight you off when all they really want is for you to catch ’em and show ’em a good time.
As he left the docks and headed towards the nearest lodging-house, he had only one woman on his mind: a young and spritely thing, with long flowing hair and a smile that could melt a man’s heart from a mile off. ‘You’re a lucky girl, Lucy Baker!’ he chuckled. He hoped she’d kept her looks and taken care of herself, because Eddie boy was on his way!
He called her up in his mind and smiled. Even after two years away and countless other women, he’d still got a soft spot for her. She’d been a virgin when they’d met, a hardworking shop girl, still living with her parents, and she’d fallen for him hook, line and sinker. Who knows, if she treated him right, he might even consider putting a ring on her finger. Somehow, she had got to him, where the others hadn’t. Maybe it was her innocence and loyalty – things in short supply among the women he usually had dealings with.
He squared his shoulders and marched on. That doesn’t mean to say I’ll be staying for sure, he thought. Oh no! Like the man said, there are plenty of fish in the sea, and half the fun is catching them, then throwing them back for another day.
An hour and a half later, he had drunk a pint, had a strip-down wash and bedded the landlord’s daughter, twice. And now he was on a bus, headed for Kitchener Street, a mile or so from the docklands – number 14. He checked his notebook and scanned the many names there. Yes, that was it – Lucy Baker at number 14, Kitchener Street, Liverpool.
‘Will that be a return ticket, or one way?’ The conductor had his ticket-machine at the ready.
‘I might be coming back, or I might not.’ Edward liked to hedge his bets, especially as he didn’t quite know what awaited him. ‘I’ll have a return ticket, if you please.’
‘Return it is.’ Turning the handle on his machine, the conductor ran the ticket off. ‘That’ll be tuppence ha’penny.’
Twenty minutes later, the arrogant young seaman was strolling down Kitchener Street, checking the door numbers as he went. ‘Here we are!’ He had remembered the street as being long, with every house looking the same; narrow doors and white-stoned steps, and netted curtains up at the windows. But yes, this was the one – halfway down and looking exactly as he remembered. He rapped hard with the knocker.
After a couple of minutes, a plump, red-faced woman flung open the door. ‘What the devil d’you think you’re playing at?’ she demanded angrily. ‘I’m not deaf but I will be if you keep rattling the door like that?’
‘I’m looking for Lucy Baker.’ He’d forgotten that familiar lilt of the Liverpudlian tongue; it was a comforting sound to a man who had travelled a hostile world.
‘The Bakers don’t live here no more.’ Leaning forward, the red-faced woman looked up and down the street. Content that she would not be overheard, she confided, ‘There was a bit of a to-do in the family, if you know what I mean.’ And seeing that he did not know, she went on, ‘Ted Baker – Lucy’s father – he took another woman to his bed, d’yer see? Then his poor missus chucked him out, and rightly so if you ask me!’
‘I don’t need to know all the ins and outs,’ he told her irritably. ‘I just need to find Lucy.’
‘I’m coming to that. When Lucy’s dad was thrown out, he moved in with his new woman – went to live on York Street, they did – and good riddance to ’em! This house became vacant, and me an’ my Eric moved in. Been here a while now.’
‘So Lucy went with her father, is that what you’re saying?’
‘Did I say that?’ She liked to tell her story properly, and wasn’t finished yet. ‘Well, soon after she gave him the old heave-ho, his missus upped sticks and buggered off and nobody knows where she went.’
‘So where is Lucy?’ Frustration rose in him. ‘What happened to her?’
‘Oh, aye, you might well ask!’
‘I am asking, and I’d be obliged if you’d give me an answer.’ Trent had no patience with folks like this, especially after the travelling. He’d come a long way to get here, and no doubt he’d be going a long way back, sooner or later. So, there was no time to be wasting.
‘All I can say is, it’s a good job Lucy was the only child.’ Folding her fat little sausage arms, the woman rattled on: ‘Y’see, her mam had such terrible trouble bearing a child. Lost four of ’em over the years, she did, an’ as if that isn’t enough to be putting up with, ’er scoundrel of a husband ends up in some other woman’s bed. Shame on him, that’s what I say!’
‘That’s enough o’ the chatter, lady! All I want is the whereabouts of Lucy.’ Another minute and he might end up strangling the old biddy.
Not one to be bullied, she declared sharply, ‘Hold yer ’orses. I were just getting to that!’
‘For Chrissake, woman, get on with it, then! Where the bloody hell is she?’ When he now took a step forward, the red-faced woman took a step back.
‘She’s moved in wi’ Bridget.’
‘Who the hell’s Bridget?’
The fat little woman gave a wicked grin. ‘Everybody knows Bridget!’
‘Well, here’s one who doesn’t.’ When he took another step forward, she took another step back. ‘I couldn’t give a toss about Bridget. Just tell me where my girlfriend is, and I’ll trouble you no more.’
‘All right! All right! There’s no need to get aeryated. I already told you, I were coming to that.’
When he glared at her, she nervously cleared her throat and hurriedly explained, ‘Bridget is a woman well-known in these parts … particularly by the men, do you get my drift? Oh yes, she might be generous with her favours, but she charges well enough, and so do her girls, though o’ course we ain’t supposed to know about what goes on in that place. The bizzies’ll put her away if she’s found out, an’ none of us would want to be responsible for putting Bridget away, nor any of her girls neither.’
She took a well-deserved breath. ‘For all her wrongdoings, she’s gorra good heart, has Bridget, and she’ll help anybody in trouble. Lives along Viaduct Street, number twenty-three. You’ll find Lucy there.’
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