An experienced cook-housekeeper was a valuable commodity and Ida had a new position long before Mrs Trembath was settled with a new cook. (The character with which she had furnished Ida admitted grudgingly that she was a ‘good plain cook’ adding that she was ‘prone, on occasions to obstinacy and discourtesy’ but her new employer, who knew Mrs Trembath, disregarded this.)
What was difficult was adjusting to new ways.
Ida had worked for Mrs Trembath for close on eleven years and, in spite of the recent changes, knew her ways and whims. Now she had to learn the ways and whims of Mrs Jenkins, her husband, her unmarried brother and her three grown up sons. Had she, in fact, realised quite how many men there were in the household, she might not have accepted the position but now, she told herself, it was too late.
Ida Goss was not easily defeated and must learn new ways.
Breakfasts, for a start. Mrs Trembath had breakfasted lightly, usually at around ten o’clock, with toast and tea, but the five Jenkins men required a more solid start to the day with finnan haddock, brawn or sausages, poached or scrambled eggs and several platefuls of toast and marmalade. They also, since they caught the ten past eight train to Truro, required it to be on the table by seven am. Some early mornings, as Ida passed Mrs Trembath’s house and toiled on up the hill towards the Jenkins’ home half a mile away in Spernan Wynn Road, she regretted her decision.
On the other hand, she was required only to cook. Mrs Jenkins had a competent maid and the nanny who had looked after her three sons still lived with them and did most of the running of the household. It was obvious, in fact, that Nanny Opie and Mrs Jenkins were friends and companions and that it was Mrs Opie – she was unmarried and the title was a courtesy one – who held sway over the family. Certainly it was she who came to the kitchen each morning to discuss the menus for the day.
Lunch, since only the two women were at home, was a light one but the evening meal, taken when the men arrived home on the five fifteen train, was substantial. Soup, even on the hottest days, followed by a meat course or baked or fried fish, with potatoes and greens – but never cauliflower, which, according to Mrs Opie, gave ‘her boys’ wind. Followed by a dessert – fruit tart, milk pudding or similar nursery fare – and, finally, cheese or a savoury.
Ida, in a kitchen that was smaller than Mrs Trembath’s if newer and airier, being on the ground floor rather than in the basement, worked hard all afternoon to prepare this meal and arrived home most evenings ready for her bed.
Not, she supposed, walking home past Kimberly Park one autumn evening when the gas was already lit, that she had anything else to do. Occasionally there was an evening meeting at chapel but mostly she just sat with her cup of tea in her kitchen, staring at the coals in the range or out over the back yard.
And apart from chapel, she spoke to more or less no-one from one week end to the next.
At Mrs Trembath’s there had been Edie Teague who, if not the brightest body, was at least cheerful and brought with her stories of her family in High Street and the gossip – not that Ida approved of gossip – from the Seven Stars where she spent her evenings. And Mrs Trembath herself, in the right mood, had not been averse to a chat.
Mrs Jenkins, on the other hand, conversed only with Mrs Opie, who obviously thought it beneath her to communicate with Ida any more than was necessary to give orders, and Mrs Richards who came in for the rough was, she quickly realised, half-witted and spoke to no-one but herself. (Which she did with alarming frequency.) Now Ida missed Bea more than ever, as well as Orion, who had been a quiet but friendly presence about the home. Now, as she listened to the laughter and quarrels of the Richards family next door, spilling occasionally into the yard, she felt lonelier than she had ever felt before.
It was at times like this that she wondered if she should go back to Redruth. She had grown up there, after all, never expecting to leave until the day Percy Goss had turned up, singing in a sacred concert at Wesley Chapel. And now her sons, unlike the young Jenkins men who showed no signs of leaving the family home, no longer needed her. Orion had his Mary and was busy with his cottage and his plot. Alfred, according to Edie Teague, had regular work on the St Mawes ferry and was courting a girl who worked in a cafe along Bar Road. And Percy Goss was, Lord be praised, dead. What was there – beyond chapel – to keep her in Falmouth?
Sitting on her own in her dark kitchen – the lamp was low on oil – she remembered her old Wesley Chapel in Redruth, especially after the arrival of Mr Robert Heath as organist and choirmaster – a flamboyant man who described himself as a Professor of Music and arranged thrilling concerts both in the chapel and around the town.
Redruth was known, of course, for its singing. As well as church and chapel choirs there were glee clubs, the Redruth Choral Society with upwards of a hundred voices, and many others. And the miners, as anyone knew who heard them singing carols at both Easter and Christmas, not to mention in public houses on Saturday nights, had voices unequalled through the country.
Ivan Hart, she remembered, had a fine baritone voice. He had sung, solo, Let your Lower Lights be Burning, she remembered, at a chapel concert one year when Ida, along with Bea and others, had been called to carry buns and cups of tea to the old folk who sat listening. She could still remember the thrilling richness of those deep notes – not to mention the glimmer of fun in his dark eyes as he came over later as she stood by the steaming urn.
“Got a cup for a parched throat?” he’d asked and then, sliding his arm round her waist to reach a cup and saucer from the trestle table, although he could, rather more easily, have reached them from the front, “and I might get you a glass of something a bit stronger later.”
“What? After all they ‘ymns?” – the choir had just finished several choruses of the temperance hymn Throw out the Lifeline. “You should be ashamed.”
Ivan, grinning broadly, had assured her he was.
“You better take me in ‘and,” he said. “Show me ‘ow to mend my wicked ways.”
Had she gone with him, perhaps to one of Redruth’s many public houses, afterwards? So many years later it was hard to remember but she thought not. Her mother would not have approved and, as a good Methodist, she was a teetotaller – as Ivan Hart should have been. He was not, of course, and who could blame him, working all those hours thousands of feet below ground at the great Dolcoath mine. He, and others like him, had every excuse for slaking their thirst after a day spent down there in all that heat…
Perhaps, she thought now, she should have shown her sympathy more openly – but Ida Roskear, as she was then – was not that sort of person. But if she had been… If she had allowed him to do more than simply walk her home from the Whit Service or the Whitsun Fair… If she had shown willing to go with him, even to a public house…
Perhaps, in that case, her future might have been different.
Instead of which, at a time when men were being laid off and mines closing because of the drop in the prices of metals, he had gone off with hundreds of others to seek his fortune in South Africa and she had never heard from him again.
Not that she had expected to. He would hardly have been a letter-writer and they had never, in spite of those few occasions, been really close but those dark eyes smiling at her across the chapel or Sunday School had been something to dream about after he had gone.
Dreams, she thought irritably – brought to her senses by blood-curdling screams from children, fighting as if to the death in the back yard. Percy Goss, with his curly blond hair and round, cherubic face, before it became flushed and bloated by drink, had seemed like a young girl’s dream and look how that had turned out. Nightmare, more like; she heaved herself from her seat to lock up for the night, and Ivan Hart would, more than likely, have proved the same.
And the idea of going back to Redruth and expecting to find the town she had loved as a girl was a ridiculous one.
October brought thick sea mists which blew in across the town to overhang it most of the day, damp and grey and drenching, generally clearing towards evening for half an hour or so of watery sunlight before it was gone.
Too wet to work outdoors and he continued indoors with his study of the two boys and their swimming dog which he had started in the summer. As he worked on details – a carefully positioned hat, the back of a lad’s trousers, the seaweed on the rocks – he was cheered to recognise that this was one of his most successful paintings…
He needed cheering, he realised. The thought of Orion’s unhappiness tugged at his thoughts, catching him unawares, when he would have said he was absorbed in his work, and yet he dared not visit him.
It was more difficult, in any case, at this time of year and in this weather, when he could hardly jump onto his bicycle and pedal down the coast with the excuse that it was a glorious day. He would need to hire a trap, which meant planning in advance, which was not something he wanted to be seen to be doing. He was intending to wean himself – if that was the word – away from Orion and continually worrying about him was not the way to do this.
But worry about him he did. To the extent that his friend Charles Hemy wondered if there was something wrong.
Always a deeper thinker than his normally ebullient friend, Charles was sensitive to his moods and not yet convinced that he had recovered from his obsession with his handsome young market gardener. As they sat together after dinner at the Hemys’ one evening – there was a bottle of port on the table but Charles was a light drinker and Henry was still toying with the glass of claret that had seen him through the meal – Charles broke a longer-than-usual silence to ask if he was quite well.
“Well? Of course I am. When am I ever ill?”
“Rarely. I know that. It is just that you seem… distracted? Perhaps I should have asked if there was something worrying you?”
“Ah well.” Henry drank the last of his claret and reached for his port glass. Charles politely moved the decanter closer. “Perhaps that is the question you should have asked.”
He poured himself a small glassful.
“And if I had asked it?”
“I should have answered…” The pause that follows is a lengthy one and Charles, a patient man, waits, listening as he does so to the sounds of his daughters and a noisy board game in the next room.
Henry – perhaps he is also listening to their carefree, girlish voices – sighs.
“I should have answered – if I were speaking the truth – that I am worried.”
But Charles knows he need not ask. What – or rather whom – for the past two years has Henry worried about, other than ‘that boy.’
“Orion, of course. Who else?”
Henry can read his friend’s expression.
“But why? He is safe now, surely, and you said he is making a go of his plot of land. And is happy with his…” he pauses, sensitive to his friend’s feelings, “with his lady friend,” he finishes, and wonders whether a drop of port might be helpful to him too.
“So I thought but things have altered. The girl, Mary, was with child.” (To Charles, the devout Catholic, this statement has a distinctly religious ring.) “But it – he; it was a little boy – died at birth.” (Charles closes his eyes as if in prayer.) “He was, according to Orion, badly malformed so that his death was, in all probability, a blessing.”
Charles gives a slight nod of the head.
“Poor souls,” he murmurs. But, although the death of a child is always sad, the death of one that would have needed constant care and would probably not have lived long in any case may not be considered to be entirely a tragedy.
And the parents are young. There will be others.
“It is more than that.” Henry finishes his port and pours another glassful. An action which worries Charles. “Orion was… is desperately upset by the loss and is also – perhaps even more so – upset that Mary appears to have recovered easily. It is as if, he says, she did not really care about the child.”
“I see.” Charles is actually not sure that he does. “So they have quarrelled?”
“Oh no. Or not as far as I know. But there is a… coldness between them. A lack of understanding. And it has driven Orion back to his art.”
“Surely that pleases you?” Charles has never seen Orion’s paintings or drawings and has never felt, from what Henry has told him, that he can be as talented as his friend has suggested but that, he tells himself, is beside the point..
“Not these pictures. They are…” Henry circles his port but does not drink it. “They are… odd. Strange. Before he has concentrated on drawings of his cottage, the yard, the little cove and the rocks that define it. Simple line drawings, executed with love and representing a way of life…” He pauses, swirls his glass once more then downs the contents. “Since the… death… he has started to do something very different. Strange – you might say wild – pictures, always with a child’s face caught somewhere in the darkness.” He puts down his glass and lets out his breath in a rush of air. “They are unsettling pictures, Charles. Disturbing. I fear he may be losing his mind.”
Elsie and William were to marry this coming Saturday. The appropriate forms had been completed, the date and time of the marriage announced after Meeting for Worship for several weeks and a notice placed outside the Meeting House. Otherwise Quaker marriages were simple affairs and required no great preparations, unlike the society weddings of which Faith had read in Home Chat or the Daily Mail which Mrs Badcock occasionally brought into the house.
There would be no great arrangements of flowers, no carriages, no bridesmaids or groomsmen, no fine bridal dress with a lace veil and a long, embroidered train… Elsie would wear a simple day dress and would carry a bunch of the late roses Cyril had been protecting from the autumn winds and William would wear his dark suit and hat, as would all the men who attended. Afterwards there would be no tiered bridal cake, no sumptuous dinner with fine wines, not even a table laden with dainty sandwiches, iced fancy cakes and bowls of fruit… There would be tea, in the lobby of the Meeting House, to which Friends would contribute their own offerings of a plain and homely kind – scones, currant buns, saffron cake – to ensure that those who had come from a distance would be sustained on the way home, after which Cyril would drive Elsie and William in the trap to William’s house in Falmouth and Faith would be left to act as housekeeper in Clinton Road.
And Elsie was, she now realised, well-prepared for this new life. The trunk which Faith had helped her pack was filled with neatly hemmed sheets, pillow-slips and tablecloths which she must have sewn in her own room. There were petticoats, night dresses, aprons and plain, if beautifully stitched, undergarments and as Faith watched her sister folding each one she almost felt sad for William who, dull as he was – he had been to lunch three times now after Meeting for Worship and he was, in her opinion, very dull indeed – would have to remove them – or so she assumed – from her sister before he could do that terrible thing called ‘taking her to bed’.
There was a book – a flimsy thing with green card covers – that Susannah Anstey had brought secretly into school last term, borrowed from one of her older brothers. ‘After the Ceremony’ it was called and it contained line-drawings of a narrow, nervous-looking, young man and his new bride, who wore a flowing gown and had flowers in her abundantly curling hair, facing each other in a room dominated by a lavishly-curtained four-poster bed. As the pictures progressed through several pages the young man gradually removed the young lady’s clothing – a beribboned petticoat, a lacy chemise, a pair of equally lacy drawers, topped with a corset with a frighteningly narrow waist – until, on Page Six, she stood before him, slender and naked, with only her pretty hands to cover the parts that Susannah‘s brother had, presumably, most wanted to see.
Poor William, Faith couldn’t help thinking as she helped fold a pair of very plain, cotton drawers, was going to have to forget any dreams of such fripperies – although it was hard to imagine him having any dreams, least of all, dreams of lace and ribbons. And as for what, according to the book, was supposed to come next, it was hard to imagine anyone doing anything so unlikely, so foolish and so, when you really thought about it, embarrassing. She had giggled, of course, with the other girls, shrieked – with her hand over her mouth to stop the noise from carrying – and gasped and then moved her hands to cover her eyes whilst peering through her fingers. But that night, between the clean, white sheets of her narrow, dormitory bed, she had, she remembered, felt unusually conscious of the body that lay around her and felt, along with the cringe of horror that came with the memory of the drawings, other, inexplicable, feelings that were both upsetting and, at the same time, exciting.
It would not be like the pictures, she decided, sitting in the Meeting House, surrounded by Friends from this and neighbouring meetings, for Elsie and William. It could not possibly be so when the ceremony preceding it was so very solemn. This was a Meeting for Worship for Marriage and after some minutes of silence as they centred down, William and Elsie rose, hand in hand, and William began the meeting by saying ‘Friends, I take this my friend, Elsie Hope Vigo, to be my wife, hoping through divine assistance to be unto her a loving and faithful husband as long as we both on earth shall live.’
After which Elsie, in her familiar, clear, practical-sounding voice, promised to take her friend William Earnshaw to be her husband and they both sat and the silence resumed.
It seemed so little, Faith thought, for something so immense and instead of praying as she was meant to, she found herself looking round the Meeting House, staring, as she so often did, through the high windows at the tall elm tree whose leaves shone golden in the autumn light.
The world, or the little portion of it that she could see, could be so beautiful but in here, surrounded by so much dark woodwork and grey stone wall, it was all gloom. It seemed a sad way to celebrate what should be a joyful occasion.
After a few minutes Papa rose to speak of his hopes for Elsie and William’s happiness and the divine help they would receive throughout their lives together. William’s father spoke of Elsie’s modesty and gentleness and William’s faithfulness and conscientious attention to business matters and other Friends said such similar things that Faith stopped listening – until one, female Friend spoke of the blessing of children that she hoped would be bestowed on the young couple and her thoughts were back with the young man removing his wife’s pretty undergarments.
Would William, with his pink, flabby hands, actually….? And would Elsie, who only that morning had gone through, in detail, the instructions for ensuring that Agnes attended properly to the whitening of the front doorstep, actually allow….?
They would not, she decided, as the Elder in charge, shook hands with William and then Elsie, to indicate that the meeting was at an end. They would undress in private, meet, decently covered in their night-clothes, say their prayers and climb into their separate beds. Probably, as a married couple, they would exchange a kiss as they did so. It was impossible to imagine anything more and as the Friend who acted as Registering Officer brought forward the certificate of marriage which all present, as witnesses, were to sign and which would hang in Elsie and William’s home for the rest of their lives, Faith pushed from her mind the thought of the ‘blessing of children.’ Papa and Mama had, after all, four children and she could not imagine them, even when young, behaving in such a way.
“If only our dear George and John could have been here,” was Mama’s only comment, sitting on one of the wooden benches, a cup of tea in her hand but refusing a slice of cake. Her eyes watered with tears and Elsie, noticing, hurried across to her.
“You must be so tired,” she said. “Cyril will drive you home and Faith will go with you.” So that Faith, having signed the certificate and eaten just one buttered scone, found herself in the trap with her weeping mother.
“I feel completely exhausted,” Maud Vigo moaned as they turned under the railway bridge and into Clinton Road. “I shall take a powder and go to bed.”
And so, before four o’clock on her sister’s wedding day, Faith sat in the empty kitchen of which she was now, she supposed, in charge – Mrs Badcock and Agnes had been given the afternoon and evening off in celebration – and stared at her reflection in the window glass. A dreary-looking girl, her face almost as pale as her neat white collar and with her hair drawn back in plaits, stared back at her with dark and hopeless eyes, the rest of her life reflected against the granite walls of the back yard.
An overnight storm whose waves had thudded through the darkness had deposited huge piles of seaweed onto their little beach. As the tide went down, the clouds dispersed and autumn sunlight started to dry the heaps of gleaming bladder wrack, tiny flies rose to hover above it and by the time Orion arrived with his fork and barrow it had started, already, to stink.
It took him the better part of two hours to move it from the shore to the back of the cottage where he spread it onto the bare earth of his largest beds. He had worked hard out here this past week, lifting the swedes and carrots and setting them in the outhouse to store, before digging over his cabbage beds, removing the old haulms and taking down the straggling remains of the peas and runner beans. Now, apart from his hedge of parsley and the currant bushes his plot was completely bare and, in spite of the thick drizzle that drenched him most days, dug over to his satisfaction. The mulch of seaweed was just what it needed before he started next year’s sowings.
Mary had gone up early to Roscrows’, where she was working extra hours since Mrs Roscrow’s mother had moved in with them. When she came back yesterday afternoon he had wanted to ask how the old lady had settled but Mary had walked straight past him into the cottage. Later, as he ate his stew, he had asked but she had ignored him and, after clearing the dishes, had gone upstairs to bed.
It is impossible, he thinks now, treading down with his heavy boots the seaweed piles at the edge of the earth pathway, to speak to someone who won’t talk back. Especially when, in the past, it was generally Mary who did the talking. But at least the yard has been properly dug and although he will have only a few eggs to take to market Mary will see that he has been working.
Pulling off his muddy boots, he goes indoors, pokes at the fire and sets the kettle to boil. Then, barefoot and clutching his mug of newly-brewed tea, he goes upstairs to the studio where his drawings are still strewn across the floor and he spends some time collecting them up and placing them between the card covers of what Henry calls his folder. Then he fastens another sheet of paper to his easel…
Usually this is the moment he loves. The moment he has been looking forward to. Usually he knows what he wants to draw or to paint and longs to get started.
This time he knows only what he must not draw. He knows, from Henry’s reaction – when, before, has he seen Henry lost for words? – and now from Mary’s horror, that he must not draw the baby or anything connected with him.
And yet, what else is there? All those other subjects – the cottage, the yard, the hens, the growing vegetables, the cove, the rocks, the path along the coast – everything he loved about his life here, are unimportant compared to the twisted little body lying in the small plot in front of the house. Now he does not even want to draw his Mary, whose curved body he loves so much…
He picks up a piece of charcoal.
“Just draw,” Henry has told him. “Don’t fret about it. Just draw what’s in front of you or whatever comes into your head.”
What comes into his head is no use to him now but he can draw what is in front of him and, altering the position of his easel, he fixes his eye on the narrow fireplace against the wall – a narrow fireplace with a dusty, cast iron hood over the empty grate and a wooden mantle above. A wide mantel for so small a fireplace on which things have gathered, along with the dust and the bodies of flies and crane flies. There is a jar of pencils, an old dusting cloth, a couple of smooth pebbles from the beach, a cracked saucer with a burnt down candle…
He has no idea what time it is when he hears Mary poking the range, except that it must be late. The sun, which was high in the sky when he came indoors, sits low over the western cliffs, shooting out wavering lines of orange, green and yellow that foretell a fine day tomorrow, and the room, losing its light with the lowering sun, hangs its shadows about him as he leans in towards his drawing, using his pencil to fill in the fine detail.
Standing upright to ease his aching back, he realises he has been bent like this for some time. And the black hood, he can see now, is wrong; he has failed to catch its curve – but hasn’t Henry told him not to worry about this? It’s your work, he has told him; your vision and you should stay true to it. And he is pleased with the mantel – the pot of pencils, the crumpled cloth, the pebbles, the burnt-down candle… He has even caught the faint lines of the old spider’s web that now, in the failing light, he can no longer see. But these details were completed some time ago, when the light through the salt-crusted windows revealed them clearly. Since then – perhaps for more than an hour – he has been working on the figure in the foreground. The figure of a child in long clothes on a stool in front of the fireplace, a toy cart clutched in his hands…
There had been a row at the farm between Mrs Roscrow and her mother, which would have been something to tell Orion, Mary thought as she walked back down to the cottage. Except that it was hard to tell him about anything these days.
Not that he had ever been a talker, but before…. all that… it hadn’t mattered and they had been comfortable together whether they spoke or not. Now it was as if he had some sort of a cloud around him – or perhaps a glass case, like the one surrounding the precious clock with the swirling brass balls hanging from its pendulum that old Mrs Truscott had brought with her. Something, in any case, that came between them and made it hard – impossible even – for Mary to say what was in her mind.
At least he had been digging the plot this week and today – the smell reached her from halfway down the field – he must have brought in some of the foul seaweed last night’s heavy seas had tossed ashore. Which was a good thing and she looked around, hoping to tell him so, but he was nowhere in the yard or downstairs in the cottage. It was possible, of course, that he had gone fishing even though the tide wasn’t right, but as she started to peel the potatoes, which with a few onions would have to do for their supper – unless he had gone fishing – she heard the creak of a loose floorboard up in the studio.
Bugger the man, she thought, although it wasn’t in her nature to swear, even in her thoughts, and stabbed so crossly into the potato in her hand that her knife slipped, slicing off a portion of skin from her thumb. Bugger.. bugger… bugger him, as she held it in the air to stop the bleeding and tried, with little success, to wind a cloth around it. He was up there again and dear knew what weird stuff he was producing.
It was real Autumn weather now. Sea mists rolled in off the bay bringing the chill with them, trees and buildings dripped constantly, the great bell of St Anthony’s lighthouse tolled all night and half the day and deep grey skies hung low overhead, seeming to leave little space for living underneath them..
In Mrs Jenkins’ kitchen they needed to keep the gas lit all day and the windows closed so that by mid-afternoon Ida felt quite queasy and light-headed. When Mr Drage, the fishmonger, pushed open the back door, thrusting his way between the two hydrangeas whose great leaves drenched his jacket and apron, she welcomed the draught of air he brought with him.
“‘Ere you are midear. Seven nice plaice – you din’ want ‘em filleted did ee?”
He dumped the wet box onto the draining board.
“No. I d’like to do that myself thankee,” Ida smiled, Mr Drage being one of her favourites amongst the tradesmen. “Cup o’ tea?” she asked – and this was not an offer she would make to any of the others. “I was just making a fresh pot.”
“Tha’s very kind of ee my lover. I don’ mind if I do.”
Pulling off his wet jacket, he sat down and Ida hung it across the clothes horse which she moved closer to the range. Just to do this one task for a man who was not one of her employers gave her a feeling of satisfaction, as did reaching for the cake tin and taking out the remains of the Madeira cake she had made for yesterday’s tea.
“I’ll cut ee a good, big slice. They don’ never like the same cake two days running
so it’ll only go to waste else.”
“More fools they, when ‘tis as good as this.”
He had a cheery face, Mr Drage, red and weatherbeaten – he‘d started on the boats as a lad and still went out, he’d told her, when he could – with dark brown eyes and a full mouth of large, white teeth. He was a big man – his apron bulged from the size of his thighs and stomach – but a friendly one and Ida was generally pleased to see him. (He had a perfectly good delivery boy, but he liked, he’d also told her, to keep his hand in and the days he did this were often those on which he had to deliver to Mrs Jenkins, a fact Ida might have pondered on if she were a thinking – or perhaps a less modest – woman.)
“Dreadful weather,” she said, filling his cup with a strong, dark brown brew of tea. “In’ it never going to stop?”
“Don’t seem like it.” Mr Drage blew on his tea and took a first gulp. “Proper job!” he
exclaimed. Then, “They was saying in shop this morning they might cancel the Autumn Show if it don’t get no better by the end of the week.” (Actually this was untrue. The Autumn Fruit and Flower show which set up in a marquee on the Recreation Ground at the top of Killigrew Hill would take place, as always, no matter what the weather. Mr Drage was merely using the thought as a link to Ida’s comment.)
“That’d be a shame. I d’dearly like to see the show – especially the flowers.” (This
was also not entirely true. Ida liked flowers – what woman did not? – but had not thought of going to the show.)
“In that case…” Mr Drage wiped his large, fish-scented hand across his wet mouth.
“‘Ow about coming with me, Sunday afternoon? Weather permitting, of course.” The dark eyes glinted up at Ida who stood at the other side of the table. “If you don’ ‘ave no other escort,” he added and bent his face back towards his cup.
“Oh no! I mean, no I don’ ‘ave no-one to go with. That’d be very nice, thank ee. If
you’re quite sure…”
“Sure? Course I’m sure!” Mr Drage had a loud, hearty sort of voice when roused. “I’d
be proud to ‘ave such a fine young lady keep me company.”
Fine young lady indeed, Ida smiled to herself as, half an hour later, she set to with her fish knife, expertly filleting the plaice before dipping them in seasoned flour to be fried. Whoever heard such nonsense! It was pleasant nonsense for all that and as she walked home later she was pleased to note that the mist had vanished, the clouds had dispersed and the almost full moon was shining unobscured from a clear sky. It might well continue fine for the weekend, when, for once, she had something to look forward to.
Two Friends from Meeting were visiting her mother. Perhaps, one of them, Alice Pasco, had suggested, dear Faith might like to take the opportunity of a walk; she would surely benefit from the fresh air.
She was concerned, Faith realised, for her health. Alice was a sweet-natured woman who always asked after Mama after First Day Meeting and rarely forgot to say that Faith must take care of herself as well. It was kind but a depressing thought, as she got herself obediently into her heavy cloak and woolen scarf – there was always a wind in Redruth even if today’s was not too cold – to be regarded as someone about whom Friends should be concerned.
The wind was blowing in from the south west this afternoon, bringing with it the stench of smoke and steam from the pumping engines of the mines around the slopes of Carn Brea, as well as the dust that would turn to dirty pink the washing of any unwary housewife. The air was loud with the thudding of the stamps, the wail of sirens, the creaking and thumping of machinery and the rattle of the mineral trams and as she turned out into Clinton Road she felt the heavy, underground shudder that came from a blasting at one of the nearer mines.
She should, she supposed, take the opportunity to visit the Urens, whom she hadn’t seen for some weeks, but as the wind scattered a few clouds to reveal an expanding area of blue sky and allowing rays of sunshine to brighten the dull, grey granite of the buildings, she felt suddenly defiant. For, apart from the walk to and from Meeting and one trip to the library, she had not left the house all week. The housekeeping tasks which Elsie had apparently managed with such ease, took every hour of the day and even then Papa’s study had remained un-dusted for days and last week she had forgotten that his suit needed pressing before a meeting with local businessmen.
Every night she went to bed convinced of her inadequacy and yet one part of her mind – and this part was in the ascendant this afternoon – told her that this was not entirely her fault. It was not her fault that Mama was ill and unable to manage the house. It was not her fault that Elsie had married and moved away. And it was certainly not her fault that Papa refused to see the necessity to employ another servant.
Three people, he had said last night at supper, should not need another three people to take care of their needs. They lived simply. They did not eat sumptuous banquets or wear costly clothes that demanded great maintenance. They rarely entertained and then in the simplest fashion.
But even plain food, Faith had wanted but had not dared to say, needed to be bought and prepared and the pans and dishes cleared away afterwards. Even plain clothing must be washed and ironed and cared for. The house, even if they rarely entertained, must be kept clean and tidy, polished and dust-free, the windows cleaned and the front doorstep scrubbed so as to present a decent appearance.
It was not fair, she felt herself screaming inside, as a flash of sunlight drew glints of silver from the granite blocks of the railway bridge. It was not fair that she should be responsible for managing this household which was nothing like as simple as Papa seemed to think. It was not fair that she should be here, crunching under foot the fallen leaves of the lime tree at the end of the road instead of…. Bending her head to see below the railway arch and along Alma Place to the Town Clock on its newly-raised tower, she saw that it was almost half past two, which meant that, since it was Tuesday, she might be sitting in Miss Bradshaw’s Geography class, learning about the Alps or the river Amazon or the Nile Delta…
And then she remembered that this term would be different. This year, with a new timetable, Amy and Magel and the others could, at this moment, be doing English or History or Needlework… They might even be in the Science Room, created only two years before and where, this term, her form were to begin the study of science at the tall work-benches with their sinks and gas burners and their cupboards filled with mysteriously labelled jars.
They were fortunate young ladies, the Lord Bishop had said at the formal opening of the room – one of the most modern in the country, he told them – to have the opportunity many boys still did not have, of studying the wonders of the scientific world. Perhaps one of them – he had smiled benevolently, if without much conviction – might one day make such discoveries as Madam Curie had made in France and bring credit on her school. Certainly some of them would go on to university and might even take a degree in a scientific subject.
Faith had felt herself glow with excitement at such a prospect, unlikely as it seemed, and had looked eagerly forward to being allowed entrance to this thrilling room.
Passing under the bridge, she turned downhill past the fair meadow, where the stench of dung and urine from the animals penned there earlier in the day still fouled the air and a few sheep remained, bleating in sad clusters as they waited to be loaded in the carts that would take them to the slaughter yard.
The sounds of the poor animals seemed a suitable reminder of the pointlessness of ambition.
She would walk out towards St Euny’s Church, she decided, attempting to shake off the gloomy thought, where there were trees and some of the fresh air Alice Pasco had recommended but, as she waited for a cart to pass on Penryn Street, she saw, leaning for support against the wall of the viaduct arch, a man she recognised as Arthur Uren. He was in a state, not uncommon among miners, of breathless collapse and as she came closer she could hear, even above the creaking of another passing cart and the yells of a street vendor, the dreadful, damp, choking sounds of his feeble attempts to draw breath.
“Mr Uren. Let me help you. Here, take my arm – it’s me, Faith Vigo,” she said as he turned his face towards her, twisted with effort and a frightening puce colour. “I come to see Mrs Uren sometimes. Remember?”
He said nothing, needing all his strength to continue breathing and she reached her arm under his and, ignoring the smell of sweat mingled with smoke and general grime, started the slow process of half-leading, half-carrying him towards his home.
This was no more than a few yards but they needed frequent pauses for the gasping man to lean his weight against a wall and it was almost ten minutes before Faith managed to help him through the open doorway and into the dark passageway inside.
“Mrs Uren,” she called then. “Mrs Uren. Your husband’s not well.”
A sound came from Mr Uren, who stood slumped against the side of the staircase. A horrible sound, more like the rasping of some rusty metal object being drawn across stone than a human voice, but from somewhere within the bubbling and creaking inside the poor man’s chest came what must be words, although it was impossible to make out what they were.
“Just rest a moment. Mrs Uren!” she shouted in the direction of the kitchen. “Are you
there?” For she was breathless herself, after heaving the helpless man along the pavement, and the idea of moving him any further seemed an impossibility.
“No…ot ‘ere.” More gurgles than words but this time she understood. “Gone down….”
The man’s shoulders, hunched as if this might help him to draw breath, drooped suddenly downwards and his legs, in their loose and shabby trousers, buckled with the effort of speech. Faith reached forward, drooped his arms across her shoulders and took a deep breath. At least, she thought, using all her muscle power to heave him, as if he were a sack of flour or coal, she could draw breath which was more than this poor man could do.
In the kitchen, when they eventually reached it, there was indeed no sign of Mrs Uren or the children as she let the man slide from her arms onto his chair beside the back door, where he slumped, drawing in wheezing, painful-sounding breaths, his cheeks still flushed a violent crimson.
And it was no use, she knew as she stood panting beside the range, suggesting she should go for a doctor. The Urens would never be able to afford such an expense and, from what she had heard Papa say, little that a doctor would be able to do to help.
Last year she had attended, with other Friends, a talk by a Dr Laurie on first aid, knowledge of which he was attempting to establish particularly in the mining communities. Admittedly her interest had been in learning what should be done in the case of an accident at home – cuts, burns or a turned ankle – but the doctor had also spoken, this being a particular concern of his, about the lung weaknesses to be found among miners who had spent years underground, breathing in the foul air, the fumes and the granite dust from the constant blasting. The death rate among these men was, he said, appalling and indefensible and he and some colleagues were carrying out investigations which might in time lead to a change in mining practices.
Meanwhile, for men like Mr Uren, there was little hope and no effective treatment. Rest and as much fresh air as possible was the best that could be done for them.
“I’ll make some tea,” Faith told the man, whose breathing, now that he was sitting,
was a little easier, so that he was able to tell her, after several attempts, that his wife had taken the children to see her sister over towards Camborne.
“I went up shop,” he explained. “I needed baccy but…”
Tobacco was another cause of lung disease, Dr Laurie had said, but it was pointless to repeat this and as the man’s speech disintegrated into a bout of coughing Faith concentrated in hunting for his wife’s tea caddy.
“Thankee maid.” Another ten minutes had passed and the man’s voice was much firmer as she leaned towards him with a mug of steaming tea. “You come a bit nearer, eh?” And then, as she did as he asked, she felt his hand, with surprisingly strength considering his weakness not long before, make a rough and clumsy lunge not for the mug but towards the front of her dress.
Gasping, not realising at first what was happening, she drew back, heard the tin mug fall with a splash and a clatter onto the stone floor, and felt him grasp her, now with both hands, to drag her face against his greasy waistcoat and then horribly downwards towards a sudden hole between the undone buttons of his stinking trousers to press it inwards against the great, warm, living thing that rose out of it.
“Tha’s a good maid,” she heard him wheeze above her. “Tha’s what ‘ee d’want, aint it? Tha’s what ‘ee come ‘ere for. I knew all along what ‘t’was.”
He continued to worry about Orion, whilst still not daring to visit the cottage. Meanwhile he continued with his Genoa painting, losing himself for hours at a time in the luminous light and pale Mediterranean colours, stirring memories of the warm and happy weeks of his recent trip.
“You could go back.” Charles Hemy has driven to Pennance cottage, despite the rain, to
see his friend’s work in progress and to reassure himself that he is not still brooding about ‘that boy.’
“Even at this time of year the Mediterranean climate must be an improvement on this one.”
He gestures towards the studio window, where dreary rivulets of rain obscure a drowning landscape.
“Not at the moment. I am busy enough here. Besides…” Henry turns away from his
warm, Italian scene and stares at a picture of Charlie Mitchell’s tanned and muscular back on his studio wall.
And besides… Charles sets aside his cane and drops, somewhat irritably, into a chair, Henry is worried about his wretched boy…
“I am still concerned about Orion.” His suspicions are confirmed and Charles allows
himself a grim smile, which is more or less concealed by his thick, white moustache. “I am worried about his pictures.”
“As you said.”
“Well, they are… disturbing. The lad is obviously unhappy.”
“As his… wife must be also. I am sure they will comfort each other. And there…”
And there will be more babies, he is about to say but Henry, who is never good at standing still, has started to pace about the room in a way that makes it hard to concentrate.
“You may be right. But I am still worried. About his state of mind.”
Henry knows, as it happens, more than most men, about illnesses of the mind. He comes, after all, from a family of doctors, his father working at the hospital in York, founded by his great, great grandfather, which is still the only one in the country providing humane treatment for sufferers of mental ailments. He knows that one need not be born ‘mad’ but can have the fragile balance of the mind upset by circumstance – especially, he thinks now, a person who has a gentle, loving temperament; someone who thinks more than he speaks and does not always have the words with which to express those thoughts.
And – a new, still more uncomfortable, thought comes to his mind – this… trouble… is all his fault.
If he had never come into Orion’s life he would still be working in the Falmouth market garden, where he had seemed contented enough. Or if he had not interfered with Charles’ plan for the boy to emigrate to America, he would be a thousand miles away in the new world…
It is his, Henry’s, fault that the boy is in this remote cottage where he and his girl are miserable and he is haunted by his dead child.
But he is being ridiculous, he tells himself. He has a least given the boy a chance of a better life than that of a garden apprentice. And, if he had gone to America, he might have succumbed to some terrible disease on the boat or been captured and scalped by Indian tribesmen or frozen to death during one of that continent’s vicious winters. In spite of this the feelings of guilt continue to nag at his mind. Tomorrow, he tells himself, offering Charles a glass of port wine which he knows he will refuse, he will drive out and visit Orion. He has left it too long.
The rain stopped during the night and next morning he sent Georgie Fouracre to the livery stables to engage a pony and trap in which he was able to make a fairly speedy journey to the Roscrows’ farm where he stabled them. The lanes were quiet, the hedgerows adorned by tangles of old man’s beard, clusters of black or scarlet berries and streamers of bright red creepers like a church decorated for harvest home, and as he strode down the fields towards Orion’s cottage the sea lay before him, winter green but with sporadic sunlight glinting so sharply off the waves that it hurt the eyes. A good day, he thought, for painting en plein air.
He had seen Mary up at the farm, coming into the courtyard with a basket of washing as he left the stable. Both were taken by surprise and Henry, recovering first, asked if Orion were at the cottage.
“Far‘s I know.”
Her eyes used to light up, he remembered, at the sound of Orion’s name. Now they retain the same dull, sadness as when she came out of the washhouse.
“‘E’ll be upstairs. In ‘is room,” she added indifferently.
The girl shrugged her shoulders and looked away. Putting down the basket, she pulled at the pole which held the washing line aloft, lowering it to the point where she could reach it.
“You’re working for Mrs Roscrow?”
A pointless question but he felt impelled to keep the conversation going.
“I do extra now Mrs Roscrow’s ma’s living ‘ere. Brings in more money.”
The girl bent towards the basket and then paused and Henry, guessing she might be about to hang up garments of an intimate, female nature, felt obliged to move away. As he walked down to the cottage, trying with little success to avoid the mud on the well-trodden path, he continued to worry about Orion.
Who was, as Mary had said, in ‘his room’. As Henry bellowed his name from the back doorstep and attempted to clear the mud from his boots, he heard the door open at the top of the stairs and the sound of descending footsteps.
There is a look on the boy’s face that is hard to interpret. It is a wary look, almost the look of someone who has been caught doing something wrong but there seems to Henry to be something else – an expression, perhaps, of resignation.
“I thought I’d come out to visit.” Henry states the obvious. “I left the trap at the farm.”
Orion says nothing and they both stare into the yard. Which is liberally covered, Henry sees, with rotting seaweed from which rises a pungent smell and, in the damp sunlight, a haze of small flies.
“You’re preparing for next year.” He states the obvious again. “Quite a whiff!”
“You’d best come in.”
The invitation, especially since it is Henry who owns the cottage, is an ungracious one but he has never been a man to take offence.
“Thank you,” he says instead. “And will you show me your work?”
Which is obviously the question Orion has been dreading but he leads him up the stairs and along the short passageway.
“I an’t done much.” He pushes open the door. “An’ it an’t no good neither.”
But he is wrong about that. The picture on the easel is, Henry can see immediately, one of his best. It is also very different from those which worried him so much on his last visit. This drawing has the simplicity of Orion’s past work; the fireplace with the mantle shelf above it and the bits and pieces that sit on that – a pot of pencils, some pebbles, a burnt-down candle, an old cloth – are clearly depicted with the honesty Henry has always admired. But there is something more. In the foreground, visible but so delicately shaded that the viewer’s eye is not immediately certain whether it is really there, is the figure of a seated child with a toy in its small hands.
“It’s a little ghost!” At first he is not aware that he has spoken aloud. Then, “It’s beautiful,” he whispers and glances sideways at Orion, who stands staring at the picture with his usual expression of uncertainty. “You’ve caught something… magical, Orion. You really have.”
“I s’pose ‘e is a ghost.” It is a while before he speaks. “‘E just comes, you see. Like I can’t keep ‘im out. It don’ matter what I draw.”
“Yes.” Henry remembers those other, disturbing, pictures. But this one is different… There is something calmer about this one. As if the little ghost has found its place and is at peace.
Which is nonsense, he tells himself. He, who believes neither in ghosts nor any sort of afterlife, should not be thinking such thoughts. Nevertheless,
“It’s very good Orion. Your best, I think. And others might think so too. This exhibition I keep suggesting to you. If you could produce more pictures like this one…”
“I don’ wan’ no-one to see it!” Orion moves, convulsively, forward, as if to tear the picture from the easel. “It’s… private.”
“Of course it is. And yet…” He hesitates. He who is so used to showing in public paintings that, to him certainly, reflect his innermost thoughts. For no-one could look at his paintings of his boys without being aware that he…. cares for them. That he admires their youth and the beauty of their firm young bodies; their eager, innocent faces. “Artists do – should – show their feelings. They are what give a picture its strength.”
Orion says nothing, his face a blank – as it so often is, Henry reflects, when he talks about art. For he is not one of the students he teaches in South Kensington. He is a country boy, poorly educated, who happens to have a talent – a raw, unnurtured talent – in which he still does not believe.
“People are interested in pictures that are, in some way, different,” he persists. “The Impressionist painters are changing people’s attitudes to art. In a new century and with a new monarch they are ready for new things…”
“I don’ understand. Any case,” Orion breaks into the lecture, “Mary don’ like them. My pictures,” he explains, in case there should be any doubt. “She don’ like me drawin’ ‘im.”
Meaning, Henry realises, her dead child.
“I met her, up at the farm,” he says. “She seemed…” He searches for an appropriate word. “She didn’t seem happy,” he compromises. “She says she’s working extra hours.”
“We d’need the money. I an’t got nothing much to sell these days.”
“I see,” Henry does, of course, see. Also that he could make things financially easier for them without causing himself problems. But he also knows that Orion would refuse any such offer.
“We don’ talk much no more.” Orion stares past Henry towards the window, from which the view is blurred by the build-up of salt. “She don’ wan’ talk about the babby an’ I…”
“And you want to.” Henry feels the old longing to put his arm around the boy’s shoulders. It is, surely, what a father would do and the boy’s father, who was, in any case, totally inadequate, is dead. “That’s understandable.” He speaks firmly, thrusting his hands deeper into his pockets. “But you mustn’t blame Mary if she feels differently. We are all different people, are we not? She is mourning your child as much as you are, but in her own way. Come on now!” Taking his hands from his pockets, he claps them as if calling to order a class of children. “It’s a lovely day out there. Why don’t we go outside and paint? Where are those water colours I gave you?”
The weather continued to improve and on Sunday morning Ida noticed the rays of autumn sunlight which hung in golden streamers through the chapel windows. She also noticed Mr Drage, in his dark Sunday suit, seated on the far side and, since he was not a regular attender, took this as a compliment to herself.
She took, perhaps for this reason, less notice of the sermon than usual, although the theme, that service to others was an important part of our service to The Lord, might well have appealed to her, as someone who spent most of her life serving others.
Afterwards, as she walked out onto on the sunlit Moor, the open area surrounded by the town hall, the library and other civic buildings, Mr Drage caught up with her.
“Weather’s set fair,” he said, doffing his Sunday hat. “I’ll come by your place around three if that suits.”
She felt, as three o’clock approached, quite nervous. Sitting, as she generally did on Sunday afternoons, in the small, overcrowded front parlour into which, because of the heavy nets at the window, little light ever reached so that the big, leather chair with its horsehair stuffing, the oversized mantel which dominated one wall and the low table from which the bible and her mother’s old prayer book never moved, except for their weekly dusting, were simply darker shapes within the lesser darkness, she felt her eyelids start to droop and knew that she would rather sit drowsing here until tea time.
And would Mr Drage, she wondered, be expecting tea? She had plenty of food, of course – a seed cake, made only the evening before, ginger parkin, for he had once commented that he had a sweet tooth, as well as a saffron cake, scones and home-made greengage jam. But would it be right to entertain a man in the house on her own?
It was warmer than ever by three o’clock and Mr Drage looked uncomfortably warm in his Sunday suit. His forehead, cheeks and heavy jowls were wet with perspiration and the handkerchief with which he wiped them looked as if it had already served this purpose many times over.
“It’s some ‘ot,” he said, several times as they set off up the steep slope of Killigrew Hill, and this, it seemed, was his only topic of conversation. “Some ‘ot, compared to early in the week,” he told her. “When you think of Tuesday, for example…” When it was miserable with drizzle, Ida thought. “Or Friday even.” When it was dry but with a biting wind blowing in off the harbour. “Some ‘ot for October,” he went on. “August you expect it, but not October.”
“Would you rather we turned back?”
Ida was not enjoying this as much as she had expected.
“Oh no, no. This is your treat,” he puffed and, pulling out the creased, grey-looking handkerchief, mopped it once more across his perspiring forehead.
Once they had gained admission to the Recreation ground and were inside the flower tent it was easier. On the flat and being required only to move slowly along the stands, Mr Drage seemed more comfortable and Ida was able to enjoy the displays of brilliant-coloured dahlias, deep blue michaelmas daisies and some late and vast-headed begonias. It was pleasant also to be part of the crowd of ladies and gentlemen, who greeted and chatted to each other among the flowers. She had seen pictures in the Falmouth Packet of such events but had never been to one before and, as she breathed in the strange, sour scent of a vase of huge and golden chrysanthemums, she felt her mood brightening.
“I’d dearly like to see the veg tent,” she told Mr Drage who stood, silent for the most part, beside her. “Daft I know, when I spend all week cooking the things…”
He laughed, for the first time that afternoon, throwing back his head and showing his big, white teeth.
“An so you shall my lover. So you shall,” he told her and they passed through to the next tent to admire bunches of long and flawless carrots, cauliflowers the size of bouquets, swedes that might have passed as footballs, runner beans almost a foot long…
“My Orion’d love to see they,” she exclaimed. “‘E’s a great one for veg-growing…”
She paused, remembering how far her Orion, and his vegetables were from her reach, and then, looking more closely at a Highly Commended cabbage, noticed that one of the inner leaves had been chewed by a caterpillar.
Nothing, she thought to herself, was as perfect as it might seem.
“They tatties’d go well with a nice bit o’ cod,” Mr Drage remarked of a trio of King Edwards. Then, “Seen enough ‘ave ee? My legs is aching, standing ‘ere looking at things”
The afternoon, she decided, as she cleared the table after Mr Drage had left, had been a disappointment. He had eaten a good tea, she’d say that for him, and there was little left of the seed cake or the parkin, which would otherwise have seen her through the week. Her jar of greengage jam was also greatly depleted and she had filled the teapot three times before his thirst was satisfied. And, away from his fish round, Mr Drage seemed to have little to talk about, beyond his health.
He suffered from palpitations, he told her, spreading his fourth scone with a thick layer of butter. Sometimes he woke in the night sure he was going to die and, if it wasn’t that keeping him awake, it was dyspepsia, for which he took rhubarb powder after every meal but it made little difference. He had been told to avoid salt and vinegar but what good was a meal without salt, he asked, and in any case, he was a martyr to leg cramps…
All in all Ida was quite relieved when he heaved his chair back from the table, pressed one hand over his stomach and said he supposed he should be going. His sister, who kept house for him, would be wondering, he said.
“That were ‘ansome tea midear,” he told her, as she helped him on with his jacket. “Proper ‘ansome.”
Boiling water for the dish-washing, Ida stared out at the quarry wall where a bright orange nasturtium, a last survivor from Orion’s plantings, hauled itself upwards on its long, pale stems through the weeds and the thin branches of a young buddleia whose glorious purple flowers had died back to resemble dingy, brown bottle-brushes. Mr Drage had said nothing about the pleasure of her company, she thought, watching the orange flower as it shifted like a hanging lantern in the breeze. But then she had said nothing of the pleasure of his.
Which, if she were to be honest, had not been very great.
Tying her apron around her Sunday skirt, she picked up her dish cloth and began to wipe jam off her best tea plates. Once again she wished Bea were still alive. At least then she would have had the pleasure of recounting the tale of her strange outing to someone who would appreciate it.