Authors: Beryl Matthews
Tags: #General Fiction
He looked at his wife in amazement. ‘And how the hell am I supposed to do that? That boy didn’t give much away while he was here. All he said was that he was living in Surrey. The work he was doing was challenging, and if he told me what it was I would never believe him.’
‘Well, he gave you a few clues, so put your mind to it, darling. I’m sure you’ll discover where Bob is.’
‘I’m leaving school now!’ Eddie lifted his chin in defiance. ‘I’ve already got a job at the grocers in the High Street as errand boy.’
‘Why are you doing that?’ Ruth couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Eddie had always liked school, so why this sudden decision to leave early? ‘It’s daft to leave before you have to. Mum, tell him he can’t do it.’
But Daisy was too tired and grief-stricken to answer. More and more decisions were being left to Ruth. ‘Eddie, you mustn’t leave school.’
‘I’ve got to. Don’t you see, Ruthie? Dad isn’t going to work any more; you won’t leave him long enough to get back to the market, and we can’t always live on Mr Hunter’s money. It isn’t right. We’ve got to start looking after ourselves and earn some money or we’ll starve! I’m going out to work and you can’t stop me!’
Ruth sat down with a thump and gripped the edge of the table for support. Her brother was right. The little money they had put away for a rainy day was nearly gone, and it was still pouring. The doctor’s fees and medicines were draining them, but she hadn’t given it a thought. The only thing on her mind, and that of her mum, had been keeping Dad alive. Everything else had been ignored – even her brothers and sister had been looking after themselves. What was the matter with her? Why hadn’t she faced this before?
‘Oh, Eddie, I’m so sorry. Of course you’re right. I must get back to the market, and I’ll pawn the brooch. That will see us through for a while.’
‘But it won’t be enough,’ Eddie insisted. ‘We’ve got to have regular money coming in. It’s only six weeks since Dad had his accident and we’ve used everything from the tin box. Dad is going to need medication for a long time. We’ve got to face it, Ruth, it’s up to us.’
He sounded so grown-up, and with a heavy heart she finally accepted the seriousness of their situation. Seeing her darling father helpless and in pain had wiped all sensible thought from her mind.
‘Don’t look so sad, Ruthie.’ John’s little face was unusually troubled. ‘We’ve talked about this with Eddie. He’s got a job and me and Sally will help you with the sewing.’
‘I can do lots now,’ Sally told her. ‘I’ve been watching you.’
‘Thank you all,’ she said with a catch in her voice. ‘Dad’s been telling me to get back to the stall, but I haven’t been listening. I can see now that he’s worrying about how we’re going to manage now he isn’t working, and that won’t help his recovery. I’ll have a word with him and tell him what we are going to do.’
Eddie nodded. ‘We’ve got to see that we can pay the rent and not starve, Ruthie, and you’ll have to take over the family because Mum’s not able to make any decisions at the moment.’
Daisy had gone back upstairs, taking no part in the conversation; hardly even aware it was taking place. It was as if her whole world was in the bedroom upstairs, and nothing else registered with her.
‘I’ll start right now, Eddie. You take that job with my blessing. Sally and John, there are toys in the front room to be finished off, and material torn up small to make stuffing. I’ll be back on the stall in the morning.’ She hugged each one. ‘I’m proud of you.’
There hadn’t been much reason to smile just lately, but now all three children’s faces lit up with relief. Sally and John disappeared into the other room and Eddie shot out the door to see how soon he could start the job as errand boy.
Ruth stood up, took a deep breath, and walked up the stairs. Her mother was in her usual place beside her husband, looking frail and worn. It was time to start giving orders.
‘Mum, enough! Go to bed. You need sleep.’ Ruth literally lifted her out of the chair.
‘What are you doing?’
‘Making you get some rest. If we’re going to survive this terrible time then changes have to be made. Eddie’s starting a job, Sally and John are helping me, and I’ll be back in the market tomorrow.’ Steve was watching his daughter taking charge, and she said, ‘I’m sorry, Dad, but we can’t go on like this. I’m taking over or we’ll all end up in the workhouse.’
‘Oh, thank God! I’m worried half out of my mind. You do what you have to, Ruth, and to hell with me. I’m useless now.’
‘No, no, Steve, you mustn’t say that.’ Daisy was distraught. ‘You’re going to get better; it’s taking time, that’s all.’
He reached out and took hold of her hand. ‘We’ve got to face the facts, darling. I might never be able to work again, and I’m not going to get any better if I lie here worrying about the rest of you. Do what Ruth says and get some rest.’
‘Come on, Mum.’ Ruth guided her out of the room and to the bed made up for her in Sally’s room. ‘Rest, because we’re no good to Dad like this. He’s got to know the money is coming in, and that we can manage while he’s ill.’
Daisy sighed and was asleep as soon as her head touched the pillow.
Steve held out his hand when she went back to him. ‘Good girl, now tell me the truth. How much money have we got left in our tin box?’
‘Six shillings, but I’ll take the brooch to the pawn shop tomorrow. That will help, and you don’t need so much medication now, so that’s a saving. Mr Hunter has been wonderful, but there are a lot of us and we are a drain on him, and although he won’t admit it, I reckon we’ve used all the money he’d saved. The doctor and medicine have cost an awful lot, Dad,’ she told him gently, ‘but we couldn’t see you in such pain.’
‘Oh, hell!’ Steve closed his eyes in anguish, and then opened them again to search his daughter’s face. ‘What are we going to do, Ruthie?’
‘We’re going to fight, Dad!’
‘That’s what I like to hear.’ Alf came into the room. ‘Want to sit up for a while, Steve?’
‘Please, I’m sick of looking at the ceiling. It needs a coat of paint.’
Smiling at the feeble joke, Alf eased his friend into a sitting position, resting him against the pillows Ruth had put in place. ‘How’s the back?’
‘Can’t feel a bloody thing now. Wish I could.’
‘The feeling will come back when you’re properly healed,’ Alf said cheerfully. ‘Don’t you worry about a thing; you just concentrate on getting better. The rest of us will take care of everything. Won’t we, Ruth?’
She nodded and smiled, hoping to stop her dad from fretting.
‘Ruth’s just told me how the kids are rallying around to help, and I know you’re looking after them for me, Alf. I’m more grateful than I can say, but you mustn’t beggar yourself for us – and that’s an order. Ruth and Eddie are going to see we don’t starve.’
‘Now you listen to me, Steve. You and your family stood by me when I needed help, and now it’s my turn to repay your kindness. I would never have made it without you. We’re all going to come through this – including you. Like Ruth said, we’re going to fight, so I don’t want to see you retreating into hopelessness. When your ship went down you must have struggled to stay afloat and live. Didn’t you?’
Steve nodded, and Alf leant over his friend. ‘Well, you swim now, mate. Our boat might be floundering, but by hell not one of us is going to drown. Do you hear me?’
‘I hear you, Alf.’
‘Good.’ He patted his friend’s shoulder and grinned. ‘That’s enough lecturing for today. You rest now while Ruth and me get the supper ready.’
‘Thank you,’ Ruth said when they reached the scullery.
Alf’s expression was grim. ‘We mustn’t let him give up. I’ve seen men do that, and once the will to live is gone that’s the end. Steve’s a proud man, always providing for his family, but now he can’t and doesn’t even know if he’ll ever be able to again. That’s a hard burden to bear, and he could easily sink. We mustn’t let him.’
‘I know we’ll have to be firm and appear more cheerful around him.’
‘And you also need to shake your mum out of her stupor. It’s hard, I know, Ruth, but it’s got to be done.’
‘I’ve already started by making her go to bed. She hasn’t allowed the kids to do more than tiptoe into the room and see Dad, but I’m going to encourage them to sit with him and chatter about the things they’ve been doing.’
‘Just the thing; their lively talk will help him. He must be bored to tears confined to that room with only grim faces around him.’ Alf removed his jacket and rolled up his sleeves. ‘Now, what can I do?’
‘Peel the potatoes, please.’ She put the sausages on to cook, feeling as if she was back in the world again. Dad was alive, and that was the only thing that mattered. Whatever the future held they would face it together.
Ben had gone over and over every word Bob had said. He could see his tall figure in his mind’s eye striding along, riding Midnight, laughing with the other men, and teasing Lilly. He had been fit, well dressed and more relaxed than he had been the last time he had been here. And it had been clear from the fine condition of his hands that he hadn’t been doing manual labour. Where had he been, and what had he been doing since he walked away from here?
‘Damn you, Bob, where are you?’ Ben cursed as he made his way to the stables, knowing there was one man who he might have talked more freely to.
‘Good morning, Captain. Have you come to see how the new stallion is settling in?’ Jim greeted him, smiling with pleasure. ‘He’s a fine animal, but a little restless.’
‘Ah, I expect he is. Put him in the large paddock and let him have a free run. I’ll look at him later.’
‘Yes, sir.’ Jim was about to walk away to carry out his orders when Ben stopped him.
‘Leave that for a moment. I need your help, Jim. When Bob was here did he say anything about where he was living?’
‘He didn’t say much.’
‘Think, Jim. I must find him. Steve Cooper’s had a terrible accident, and Bob’s father said they need him there to help the family.’
‘About as bad as it can be. Steve might never walk or work again, and the Coopers are in a desperate situation. Alf Hunter is doing what he can, but they need all the help they can muster. I hardly recognized Ruth and her mother. They won’t take help from me after the way we treated Ruth, and that’s sad, but understandable. They have their pride and don’t want to be beholden to me.’
‘Oh, damn, I’m sorry to hear that. Bob would want to know because he did say to me once that the Coopers were like family to him.’
‘Can you think of anything he said that might give us a clue to his whereabouts?’
Jim leant on the paddock fence, deep in thought. ‘All I can recall him saying was that he lived in Surrey and was earning enough to rent the top floor of a house on a hill.’
‘Ah, I haven’t heard that before. Keep thinking, Jim. What about his job?’
‘Challenging. Something he never thought he could do. He said he would have walked away if it hadn’t been for a remarkable woman who is in charge there.’ Jim looked at his boss. ‘He seemed to think a lot of her, but he never went into details.’
‘A woman who is in charge? He obviously said more to you than me. Was there anything else you can remember?’
The head groom was shaking his head, and then stopped suddenly, frowning. ‘At the time this didn’t make sense, but he did once refer to her as his sister, but I know he’s an only child.’
‘He might think of Ruth as his sister. Was he talking about her?’
‘No, I’m sure he was talking about the woman he worked for.’
Ben straightened up suddenly. ‘No, Jim, that’s her title! She’s a Sister. He’s working in a hospital of some kind. I noticed that his hands were smooth and well cared for, and with his strength he would be invaluable in lifting patients. My God, if he is doing that kind of work it’s even more important that we find him!’
‘You might be jumping to the wrong conclusion, sir.’
‘That’s possible, except for one thing. He said to me that if he told me what he was doing I would never believe him.’
‘Supposing you’re right, sir, Surrey is a large county and he could be anywhere.’
‘I know.’ Ben slapped the fence in frustration. ‘Let’s consider what we’ve got. He’s working with someone he calls Sister . . . He’s living in a house on a hill. Did he say anything about the area?’
‘Hmm, only that it was a nice place, and sometimes, when he’s off duty, he sits on the terraces and looks at the river below.’
There was silence as Ben digested this information, his mind going over every possibility. An idea was forming, but it was too unlikely to believe. But there was no getting away from the fact that all the clues fitted the place.
‘I think I know where he is, Jim. He’s in Richmond, and I’ve a fairly good idea where he’s working. If it’s true, then he was right to say that I wouldn’t believe him. I’ll go there straight away. Thanks for your help.’
‘Good luck, sir,’ Jim called to the hastily retreating figure of his boss.
Gazing down on the River Thames, Ben nodded to himself. Yes, this must be the place. Even if he had been able to discern the kind of work Bob was doing, he would never have come here if he hadn’t mentioned this spot. Injured servicemen were being cared for all over the country, but the boy was here, he had to be!
He saw her as soon as he walked into the building. She was younger than he would have expected, around thirty perhaps, and nothing striking about her, until she smiled. Then there was nothing ordinary about her.
‘Can I help you, sir?’
‘I am Captain Russell and would like to have a word with Robert Hunter, if at all possible. It’s very important.’
‘Of course.’ She caught a man who was walking past. ‘Ask Bob to come to my office as soon as he’s free, please.’
Ben felt a surge of relief. He was here!
‘You can wait in my office, Captain Russell. It may take Bob a while before he can come. Would you like tea?’
‘No, thank you.’
He was just about to sit down when the door opened again. The smile on Bob’s face died the moment he saw who was waiting for him, but he quickly recovered.
‘What brings you here?’ he asked politely.