Читать онлайн «The Willow Pool»
He was smiling again, and she sensed an easing of the tension between them and was so relieved that she reached up on tiptoe and kissed him gently.
‘I’d like to be your best girl, Kip, if that’s all right with you, but I’m not ready, just yet, to start thinking about – well – serious matters. Not with any man, I’m not.’
‘Then when you do, sweetheart, be sure that I’ll be top of the queue! And don’t worry. I’d never ask for anything you weren’t willing to give. I’d wait, Meg. I’d respect your feelings.’
‘Then what more could a girl ask for?’ she said, remembering the way it had been for a housemaid called Dolly Blundell. ‘And if we don’t get a move on, we’re goin’ to miss the last tram to Lime Street!’ Smiling, she took his hand, hesitating just long enough to whisper, ‘And thanks, Kip, for what you’ve just said. I do care for you – only be patient?’
That night Meg thought a lot about Kip Lewis and about the way he loved her. Yet she, deceitful little faggot, had hemmed and hawed and asked for time, saying she was too young; not over Ma’s death; didn’t know her own mind. But it was none of those things, because truth was that she was in a muddle still about Ma and the people at Candlefold Hall, and a legal document in which her mother was hereinafter referred to as the Purchaser.
She had told no one about the deeds, yet before much longer Nell Shaw must know, because the enormity of her inheritance must be shared with someone; the mystery of it too. So tomorrow, after she had said goodbye to Kip and wished him Godspeed and a safe landfall, she would show Nell what was inside the bulky packet; would hand it to her casually – ‘So what do you make of this, eh?’ – then watch her face as the truth dawned.
What was more, Meg fretted, punching her pillow, turning it over, Nell must promise never to say a word about it; especially to Kip. It was bad enough, she sighed, being illegitimate; what would people around here think if it got about that Dolly Blundell hadn’t been entitled to the wedding ring she wore and had been given a house into the bargain? Ma’s reputation would be in the gutter!
Yet her mother’s good name would be safe with Nell. Nell had been her friend and wouldn’t blab, though what she would say when she got her hands on the packet of deeds was anybody’s guess!
‘Well! Bugger me!’ Nell said. ‘It makes you think, dunnit? I mean – givin’ her an ’ouse for a silver shillin’. It isn’t on, is it …?’ She laid the documents on the kitchen table and fished in her pocket for a cigarette. ‘Tell you what, girl. How about puttin’ the kettle on? A cup of tea is what we need, and sod the rations!’
‘A bit of a shock, Nell?’
‘Not half! Now don’t get me wrong, Meg Blundell, but those Kenworthy folk must have been plaster saints, or sumthin’! I mean who, will you tell me, looks after a girl who was nuthin’ to them but a paid servant, doesn’t show her the door when she’s been left high and dry and in the club, then gives her somewhere to live into the bargain?’
She drew hard on her cigarette, sucking smoke through her teeth, shaking her head in bewilderment.
‘So now you know how I felt.’ Meg stirred the teapot noisily. ‘When I’d got over the shock I thought the same as you. Were those people at Candleford saints or sinners? Did someone have a guilty conscience? Was Ma paid off? I went over it and over it, and y’know what, Nell? I decided that they were decent, even if they were toffs, because Ma never spoke of them with anything but respect and she loved Candlefold till her dying day.’
‘So we let well alone! Doll’s gone, and we don’t speak ill of the dead nor think ill either. If your ma had wanted us to know she’d have told us, so we respect her wishes – say nuthin’ to nobody! Don’t give the gossips bullets to fire – is that understood?’
‘Understood.’ Gravely Meg nodded. ‘And I appreciate you sticking up for Ma.’
‘She’d have done the same for me.’
‘She would, but for all that, Nell – and strictly between you and me – aren’t you just a bit curious? I know I am. I’d give a lot to get to the bottom of it, though where I would start, I don’t know.’
‘At the beginning, I’d say – if you’re really set on knowing. But before you start anything, Meg Blundell, ask yourself if you’re goin’ to be prepared for what you might find.’
‘What d’you mean? Just what might I find, will you tell me?’
‘Dunno. But if you go poking and prying you might find something you didn’t bargain for. When you start turnin’ over stones, something nasty might just creep from under one of them – see? And before you go all toffee-nosed on me, remember I’m on Doll’s side, no matter what.’
‘So if I was to try, Nell, would you be on my side, an’ all?’
‘You know I would, ’cause, let’s face it, I’m as curious as you are, truth known.’
‘So where, if you were me,’ Meg smiled, all at once relieved to have Nell’s blessing, ‘would you say the beginning is?’
‘Can’t rightly say.’ She took one last, long draw on the cigarette end, then threw it into the hearth. ‘The more I think about it, the more baffled I am. Happen by tomorrow I’ll have had a bit of time to take it in. But you’re not serious, are you?’
‘I’m not going to seriously jump in with both feet, if that’s what you mean, but I’d like to know more about the house I was born in and the people who looked after Ma, and stood by her. You can’t blame me for that, now can you?’
‘Suppose not – but be careful. You and your ma got on all right for the best part of twenty years, so ask yourself if raking over the past is what she’d have wanted – bearin’ in mind that she leaned over backwards to keep it from you!’
‘Yes, and bearing in mind that she must have known things would come into the open when she died, don’t you think Ma would’ve understood how curious I am about her precious Candlefold?’
‘So what do you aim to do?’
‘Like you said, the best place to begin is at the beginning, Nell. Once, Candlefold was a fairytale place to me. Ma would talk about it like it was all from a storybook, and I never quite knew if she was making it up or not. But suddenly it’s real. It’s the house I was born in, and the first thing I’m goin’ to do is go to the library and have a look in the atlas for Nether Barton!’
‘Up to you, I’m sure.’ Nell rose to her feet to glare at the pile of offending documents. ‘Think I’ll get me ’ead down for a couple of hours. What time are you expecting me an’ Tommy?’
‘Tea is at six,’ Meg smiled primly.
‘I came by some pickled onions the other day,’ Nell said, hand on the door knob. ‘“I’ve got something for you, Mrs Shaw,” the grocer said, all smarmy. Then he went under the counter and brought out the onions, would you believe? From the look on his face I thought I was in for half a pound of butter – but there you go! You’re welcome to them. They’ll go down nicely with corned beef hash. Sorry I can’t bring a spot of cream for the peaches, girl! See you, then!’
And throwing back her head she laughed until her shoulders shook.
The table was laid with Ma’s best cloth, the cutlery placed neatly. Potatoes cooked gently on the stove; the peaches lay in a glass dish on the cold slab in the pantry. Meg sighed with delight. This was her first party ever, thanks to Kip’s bounty. Pity he couldn’t be here too.
She closed her eyes and sent her good wishes to him wherever he was now. Probably still anchored in the rivermouth, waiting for the convoy to gather. They were, he’d said, going part of the way under escort; stopping at the Azores to take on fresh water, then on to the Canary Islands alone, and across to Panama. SS Bellis was a new ship, and fast – could outrun any U-boat, just as the Queen Mary and the Mauretania did. Once they were free of the slow-moving convoy they could get their revs up, and go like the clappers! Kip had done more sea miles than most young men, Meg thought with pride. Kip loved her and she wished she could love him back; yet love, real love, made her afraid, because things could get out of control, Nell said, and then where were you?
‘Sorry, Kip,’ she whispered to the clock on the mantelshelf. ‘Take care of yourself, mind …’
She hoped he wouldn’t buy a ring in Sydney.
‘Now that,’ said Tommy Todd, ‘was a smashing meal. You didn’t tell us you were a good cook, Meg.’
‘I’m not. It was something easy, and a tin of peaches doesn’t take a lot of opening. But thanks for the compliment, and thanks for coming.’
‘It was kindly of you to ask, girl.’
‘And kind of Kip to provide it for us! Now would you both like to sit by the fire, whilst I clear away?’
‘I’ll help wash the dishes,’ Nell offered, sinking deeper into the chair that had always been Dolly’s.
‘Thanks all the same, but I’ll see to everything after you’ve gone. Give me something to do with myself. I miss Ma most in the evenings, y’know.’
‘I miss my feller all the time,’ Nell sighed, ‘for all it’s more’n twenty years since he was took, God rest him …’
‘That was a terrible war.’ Tommy gazed into the fireglow. ‘The day I got my Blighty wound I was mighty relieved, I can tell you.’
‘Relieved?’ Meg gasped. ‘To get wounded?’
‘Oh, my word yes! When you was wounded bad they shipped you to Blighty, to England. It was worth a badly leg to get away from those trenches. Thought I was in ’eaven in that ’ospital. Clean beds, no more fighting, meals reg’lar. I was lucky.’
‘So how did you get that limp?’ Nell demanded.
‘Was too small for the infantry, me being a stable lad-cum-apprentice jockey, so they put me in a horse regiment. Horses were used a lot in that war. More reliable than motors. Motors was always getting bogged down in winter. We was hauling a big gun – took six horses – and I was on the lead horse. We started getting shelled, and copped one. Horse was killed – went down on top of me.
‘By the time I was fit for active service again the war was over. Kids skit me when I walk past, but I’d rather have a limp and an army pension than what Nell’s man got. Life was cheap in that war. I was one of the lucky ones.’
‘Ar.’ Nell nodded, hooking a tear away with her knuckle. ‘Folks made a fuss at Dunkirk; said it was awful our army retreatin’ like they did, but if I’d been a feller I’d have been glad to get out of that country. No good to us, France isn’t!’
Seeing Nell’s trembling bottom lip, Tommy smiled, diving his hand into his jacket pocket, offering five cigarettes. ‘I stood in a queue for these! Thank God I don’t smoke. I was always a little runt, and folk said that smoking stunted your growth, see. I never growed over five feet, for all that! Go on, Nell. You’re welcome to them!’
Tippet’s Yard, Meg thought later as she washed dishes and scrubbed pans, was an airless, run-down slum that should have been knocked down years ago. Liverpool was a dump, but Liverpudlians were the salt of the earth, and people like little Limping Tommy and brash, buxom Nell made life worth living in Tippet’s Yard. You had to count your blessings, Ma always said, and that, Meg decided, was what she would try to do, because there were a lot of people worse off than she was!
Yet for all that, she knew that this city would never hold her; that somehow, some day, she would find Candlefold. And when she did, she would find Ma’s heaven; that special somewhere she must have yearned for, the night she walked out into that cold, mucky yard to die.
Candlefold. Place of dreams.
The first day of May had been like most other days. Ordinary. A postcard from Kip; Nell, who had seen the postman, demanding to know what he had pushed through the letter box; a fatless day, since Meg had used up her butter, lard and margarine, and would have to do without until rations were due again tomorrow. A boring day until a little after the nine o’clock news. Meg had carried out kitchen chairs, and she and Nell sat there, faces to the last of the evening sun, talking about the days when grocers’ shelves were piled high with food few could afford, and wasn’t it amazing that the minute unemployment dropped and people had money in their pockets for a change, They had rationed food!
‘Ssssh!’ All at once Meg tilted her head. ‘Listen …’
They heard no sound, yet there was no mistaking what was to be, because each had sensed the strange quiet that hung on the air before an alert sounded. People had come to recognize that silence: a stillness so complete they could sense it, taste it almost. It was like nothing else Meg knew; a void so all-embracing that it was as if the entire city waited with her, breath indrawn, for the stomach-turning wail.
The first siren sounded distantly and she whispered, ‘It is! It’s a raid, Nell!’
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