Читать онлайн «The Willow Pool»
It was a point in her favour, Meg frowned, that she was really a love child, which sounded better than illegitimate and much, much better than bastard. Who was he, Ma? Why did he leave you? Did he know about me? Would he have married you, if he had?
Meg had already worked out when she’d been conceived. Babies born at the end of August were got round about Christmastime, she’d decided. Or had it been New Year? Had there been holly and ivy and a Christmas tree and dancing and fun? Was her conceiving a happy one?
In which room at Candlefold had she been born, and had Nanny Boag delivered her? And why hadn’t she been called Carol or Holly or Noelle? Why two saints’ names?
Oh, there were so many questions, so much still to discover. And all the answers were at a house called Candlefold Hall, if only she knew how to get there. And whilst she was daydreaming about bonny housemaids and sunny summer days, did the Kenworthy family still live there, or had it been taken by the Government as an Army billet, or a hospital or convalescent home for wounded soldiers.
Candlefold 1916. Garden Party for wounded soldiers, and Ma in a long cotton frock and a pretty straw hat.
Oh, Candlefold, why are you bothering me like this? Or is it you, Ma? Is there something you want me to know, like who my father is? Do you want to tell me you are happy again, and waiting at the pump trough in the cobbled courtyard? And if I stand there, will I hear your voice with my heart, and be glad?
And had you thought, girl, demanded her common sense in Margaret Mary Blundell’s most scathing voice, that the flamin’ pump trough might not be there; that the house, even, might have gone, an’ all?
But if she found the house unchanged, did she march up to the front door and say, ‘Excuse me, missis, but can I sit on yer pump trough for a couple of minutes; have a word with Ma?’
She clucked with annoyance, because what she intended to do was so ridiculous and stupid that Nell would give her the length of her tongue and tell her to grow up and get herself down to the dole office like most folk else with one iota of sense in their heads would do!
Yet it didn’t matter what Nell would say, nor Tommy, because Ma did have something to tell her and Candlefold hadn’t fallen down, nor the Kenworthys left it, or why did she feel so strongly about going there? Why had an old house called to her, all sunlit and shining, and why, ever since she’d opened Ma’s little attaché case, had she felt so curious and excited?
Was she bomb happy? Had the seven fearful nights got to her, and the desolation that had once been a city, and the baby on the pavement? Or was it simpler than that: did she want to get out of this place and had she latched on to Ma’s dreams and made them her excuse?
Only one thing was certain. She would never know until she found a house called Candleford. And Ma.
Getting to Preston had been easier than Meg had ever dared hope. Liverpool city centre was still choked with the debris of shops and offices and warehouses, but once she had skirted streets closed by ‘DANGER. UNEXPLODED BOMB’ signs and taken heed of ‘NO NAKED LIGHTS’ warnings, and tried not to look at piles of rubble under which might still be bodies, she had seen a red bus going to Ormskirk, and any time now, the conductor told her.
‘So get yerself on sharpish. There’s a war on, or had you forgot?’
As if she were likely to! Meg selected a seat, settling herself, arms folded, to think about what was to come, and what had been.
‘You’re goin’ where?’ Last night, Nell had drawn sharply on her cigarette, then blown smoke out fiercely through her nose. ‘You’re goin’ to a place you don’t know exists, on the off chance? What if it’s been bombed, then, or them Kenworthys have upped and offed? Goin’ to look a right wet nelly, aren’t you, and wasted time and money into the bargain? What do you expect to find there? Who do you expect is goin’ to be there?’
‘Ma.’ Meg had whispered so quietly that Nell had stopped for breath and appealed to Tommy to tell the girl she was round the bend and God only knew where she would end up if she went on with such foolishness.
‘But what harm can it do? She knows right from wrong,’ Tommy had reasoned, ‘and not to take lifts from men. Can you blame her for wantin’ out of this hole, even if it’s only for a day? Wasn’t you young once, Nell Shaw? Didn’t you do daft things, an’ all?’
‘I was, and yes, I did daft things and lived to regret some of them. But I promised Dolly I’d look out for Meg and that’s what I’m tryin’ to do! She’s getting as bad as her Ma! That Candlefold was like some magic place Doll dreamed up!’
‘You can’t photograph dreams, Nell. That house is real and it’s there still, an’ I’m goin’ to find it! If I leave early in the morning I can be there by noon – with luck, that is.’
‘So what’ll you do for food?’ Nell was wavering.
‘I’ll take cheese sarnies, and a bottle of water.’
‘You’re determined, aren’t you? If only you’d tell me why.’
‘I don’t know why. I only know there’ll be no peace for me till I find the place. You said Ma thought it was heaven on earth, and you said that heaven was where you made it! Well, if I’m to find Ma, she’ll be at Candlefold. I’ve got to know she’s all right before I decide what I’m goin’ to do.’
‘Oh, Meg Blundell, why can’t you let Doll rest in peace? She was sick and fed up with life, went the way she wanted to. Why can’t you accept it and act your age? And if you want to know what you’re goin’ to do with your life, wait till August! All the twenties are goin’ to have to register for war work soon. Why don’t you just wait and see?’
‘Because till I’m twenty, my life is my own, and until They tell me what to do and where to go, I’ll do what I want. I’m goin’ to find that house, just to look at it. I’ve got to, can’t you understand?’
‘I’m trying! But what’s going to happen if you can’t get there and back in a day? Where are you goin’ to sleep and what’ll you use for money? And how will you let me know if you end up in trouble? Ring me up on me telephone, will you?’
‘Nell, I’ll be all right! It’s somewhere I’ve got to go. Then I’ll do what the Government tells me, and go where they tell me come August. But, just this once, don’t try to stop me, Nell?’
‘Is there anything I can say that would?’
‘No, there isn’t. And I will be all right!’
Of course she would be all right. She was going to Candlefold, wasn’t she? What harm could come to her there?
With Aintree Racecourse behind her she could almost forget those nights of bombing, Meg thought, relaxing a little. There were fields ahead and to each side; she was in the country now and, apart from the houses in villages they drove through having criss-crosses of brown paper on the windows, you could be forgiven for thinking those nights had never happened.
Dear, kind Nell. Meg smiled, recalling that Nell had been up at the crack of dawn to see her off and taken Ma’s attaché case to put inside her gas oven, which was made of cast iron, and solid as any safe, she said.
Then she hugged Meg and told her to take care, demanding to know what poor Doll would say if she knew what her daughter was up to. And Meg smiled and hugged her back, and kissed her cheek, and almost said that Ma did know; was waiting for her at the pump trough.
She hadn’t said it, though, because if she had Nell would have said the bombing had driven her out of her mind, and had her locked up!
‘Ta-ra, well,’ she had said instead. ‘See you as soon as maybe, Nell.’
‘Never mind maybe! You’ll get yourself back tonight before it’s dark!’ Nell called after her, but Meg had waved her hand without turning round – bad luck to turn round, Kip said – and made for Lyra Street and Scotland Road at the bottom of it. Her heart had thumped something awful, she remembered, though she was calm enough now she was on her way.
She looked at her watch. It was nearly eight, and once she was on the Preston train she would be halfway there; halfway to Nether Barton and an old house called Candlefold. And to Ma.
She had come too far too quickly, Meg realized when told at Preston station there were no trains to Nether Barton. Never had been, and that if she wanted to get to a place like that, then she had better try her luck at the bus depot.
Luck was with her. There was a bus service, though sadly she had missed the eleven o’clock, and there wouldn’t be another until two. Fuel rationing, see? Bus services had been cut by half.
‘Then I’ll have to try to hitch,’ she said disconsolately, asking to be pointed in the direction of the Whalley road, along which she walked, right arm swinging, thumb jutting, half an hour later. She had just decided to accept any vehicle that stopped, men or not, when, with a clatter and a clang a milk lorry drew in a few yards ahead of her.
‘Going anywhere near Nether Barton?’ she called to the driver.
‘Sure. Got three farms to collect around that area. Get in, and don’t slam the door! And what are you staring at, then?’
‘Since you’re askin’ – you.’ Meg closed the door carefully. ‘I’ve never seen a lady lorry driver before. What made you want to drive a lorry?’
‘Money. And the Army, who gives me damn all for taking my husband off me, never mind enough to keep my kids on. Got three. Mum looks after them for me. But why is a young girl like yourself going to a dead hole like Nether Barton?’
‘Relations. Ma died, see, three months ago. I’m trying to trace her family.’ Not lies, exactly. ‘I’ll be twenty in August and my age group’ll have to register for war work, so I’m making the most of me time till then. And taking a bit of a break, after the bombing.’
‘You’re from Liverpool? Nasty, that blitz. Your home all right?’
‘Yes, thanks be. But all of a sudden I wanted to get out of the place. Them Germans have left it in a hell of a mess.’
‘Well, you’ll get plenty of peace and quiet where you’re going!’ Again, the hearty laugh. ‘Now I’m turning left at the next crossroads; got a collection at Smithies Farm, then it’s full speed ahead to Nether Barton, and your auntie.’
‘Cousin,’ she supplied, choosing to forget the lies that slipped off her tongue with no bother at all. ‘Honest to God, I can’t get over a woman drivin’ a lorryload of milk churns!’
All at once she was enjoying herself, and very soon she would be at Candlefold, though what she would do then was wide open to debate!
‘Where did you say you were going?’ the driver asked.
‘Candlefold.’ The word came lovingly.
‘No Candlefold Farm around these parts. Leastways, if there is it hasn’t got a milk herd.’
‘It isn’t a farm. How am I goin’ to set about finding it, do you suppose?’
‘I’ll drop you off at the shop in the village when we get there. It’s a post office too, and the lady behind the counter delivers the local letters. She’ll be able to tell you. Now, hang on. This lane’s a bit bumpy!’
The lady in the post office at Nether Barton did indeed know where Candlefold was.
‘Going after the job?’ she asked.
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