Authors: Beryl Matthews
Tags: #General Fiction
‘I’m going to church.’
‘Mr Hunter,’ Ruth called.
‘If Bob knew how bravely you’re fighting to get well again he would be proud of you.’
‘I don’t think that boy’s got any respect left for me, and I don’t blame him.’ Unable to say anything else he walked out of the door in an effort to hide his anguish.
The church was empty now, and the peace and quiet was just what he needed. Finding a pew at the back of the church he sat down and rested his head in his hands. He’d never been much of a churchgoer, but he remembered praying in the trenches – they all did. They reached out in the desperate hope that someone cared about their plight. The carnage and suffering had blighted many a life, including his, but he was alive, and it was time he started to live like a proper man again. The war was past, and that’s where he should leave it. Taking a deep, shuddering breath, he let the soothing atmosphere of the empty church settle his jangling nerves.
After spending about an hour in solitude he’d cleared his mind and began to think clearly. And one thing he knew for certain was that the next few weeks were not going to be easy, but if he wanted to regain his self-respect, it had to be done. He would succeed for his wife who had died too young, and for his son. They might never know how much he still loved them, but that wouldn’t stop him trying to rebuild his life.
He lifted his head, stood up and walked out of the church, feeling more in control. He was going to put his life to rights and earn back his dignity. If Bob did return one day he would show him a father he could respect.
There was a little warmth in the sun and Bob let his thoughts relive the last few months.
He had left home without knowing where he would go, or what he would do. A train had been due as soon as he’d reached the station and he’d bought a ticket, not caring where it was going. It was daft, he knew, and he should have had some kind of plan, but he just hadn’t been able to think straight. The only thing on his mind was to get as far away as he could.
When the train stopped at Maidstone in Kent, he’d got off, and for a few weeks had moved around picking up jobs where he could. At a place called Hunton he’d been taken on at Pearson’s Farm. It had been a hard winter living in a barn, and he didn’t even want to think about Christmas. He had pictured himself sitting round a blazing fire with his mum and the Coopers, and that memory had been so painful he had been relieved when 1920 had arrived. It was spring now and the farmer had paid him off. He wasn’t sorry.
With his meagre pay in his pocket he picked up his belongings and began to walk to the nearest village. He deserved a comfortable bed for the night.
The house with the sign in the window saying ‘rooms to let’ was pristine. Bob glanced down at his filthy clothes and grimaced. The lady in the village shop had recommended this place to him, but after months of digging ditches and sleeping in barns, he had his doubts about going in. He had cleaned up as best as he could, but he needed a bath and somewhere to wash his clothes. There was enough money in his pocket for one night, so he really hoped the landlady wouldn’t turn him away.
He glanced at the house again. Well, there was only one way to find out, he thought, as he lifted his head and walked up to the door. It opened before he could knock and he was confronted with a diminutive woman of around sixty, he guessed, and she was smiling up at him.
‘Took you a while to make up your mind, lad. Want somewhere to stay?’
‘Er, yes please, if you’ll take me. I can pay. Mrs Johnson in the shop said you were reasonable.’
‘Of course I am. Come on in. I’m Mrs Trent.’
Before stepping into the immaculate front room he removed his boots and held them in his hand. ‘Sorry I’m in such a mess, Mrs Trent, but I’ve been roughing it for a while.’
‘I know, lad. You’re Bob Hunter, and you’ve been ditching for Farmer Pearson. I doubt the old skinflint gave you a decent meal either.’
He was astonished that she knew his name, and showed it. ‘Actually, his wife fed me quite well. But how did you know who I was?’
‘Don’t look so surprised. The whole village knows about you. You’re that quiet boy from London who works at any dirty job with never a complaint.’ Her laugh was infectious. ‘You come with me and I’ll find you some clean clothes. My late husband was a tall man so his clobber should fit you.’
She was very agile for her age and Bob had to take the stairs two at a time to keep up with her. He waited politely outside the room as she bustled around taking garments out of drawers and the wardrobe, holding each one up to him to see if they would fit. Finally satisfied she urged him towards another door on the landing.
‘Now, you go and have a nice bath. There’s a towel and soap waiting for you. When you’ve finished put on the clean clothes and come downstairs again. I’ll have a nice dinner waiting for you.’
Giving him another brilliant smile she pushed him through the door, and then bustled away.
By now Bob was quite bemused. She had acted as if she’d been expecting him, but it was a small village and perhaps the lady in the shop had sent a message to say she had told him to come here. He took a deep breath. Whatever had happened, he wasn’t about to do anything but enjoy his good luck. When he finally glanced around him he gasped. This was a proper bathroom with taps and hot water from a device over the bath. After two weeks of working in dirt and sleeping in a barn, this was heavenly. He sang softly to himself as he ran the water and undressed.
After wallowing in the bath until the water was almost cold, Bob dried himself and then put on the clean clothes Mrs Trent had given him. They were just a little on the small side for him, but it was wonderful to have something decent to wear.
When he went downstairs, the landlady gave him a thorough inspection. ‘That’s better. You’re a handsome boy now you’re not covered in dirt. Leave the clothes outside your door tonight and I’ll let them out a bit. They should fit you perfectly then.’
‘Oh, Mrs Trent, you don’t need to go to all that trouble. Once my own clothes are washed—’
She held up her hand to stop him. ‘Now, don’t you worry about anything. I used to be a dressmaker, so it won’t take me long to make the alterations. Dinner’s ready. Come and meet my other tenant.’
Sensing it would be useless to argue, Bob followed her into a small dining room. The dark furniture shone with years of dedicated polishing, and he breathed in the clean smell with pleasure. How his mother would have loved this house. She might have lived longer if things hadn’t been so harsh for her. This was how people should be living, and not in the squalor of the slums.
‘Bob, this is Jim,’ the landlady said.
‘Pleased to meet you.’ Bob shook hands with a man in his late twenties, or even a little older than that. He was of average height, with brown hair and blue eyes that shone with good humour. He liked him on sight.
‘Sit down,’ Mrs Trent urged. ‘You two can get to know each other after you’ve eaten. I’m sure you’re both starving.’
It was the best steak and kidney pie Bob had ever tasted. Mrs Trent had evaded any mention of her charges for such luxury, but by now he didn’t care if the night’s lodging took every penny he’d earned. It was worth it!
‘Off you go to the front room and I’ll bring you a nice pot of tea.’ The landlady was busy clearing the table, smiling approval at the empty plates.
The front room had the same lovely smell of polish and Bob sighed with pleasure as he settled in a large comfortable armchair.
‘How long are you staying?’ Jim asked.
‘I don’t think I can afford more than one night of this luxury, but I was desperate for a chance to clean up and sleep in a decent bed for a change. The job I had at Pearson’s Farm didn’t pay much and I’ll have to move on tomorrow and find another job.’
‘Hmm.’ Jim studied the tall boy in front of him. ‘Know anything about horses?’
‘Not a thing.’
‘Would you mind being a stable boy?’
Bob sat forward eagerly. ‘I’ll do anything. Do you know of a job going?’
‘I work at the big house about ten minutes’ walk from here. I’m head groom and one of my lads has just left, so I can put in a word for you with the master, if you like?’
‘Would you? I’d be grateful. I’m a hard worker and wouldn’t let you down.’ Bob was on his feet and shaking Jim’s hand.
Laughing, Jim waved him back into his chair. ‘I’ll have a word with Captain Russell in the morning. You come to the house at ten. The captain will want to meet you before he agrees to take you on.’
‘Of course.’ Bob sat down again just as their landlady came in with their tea and a large fruitcake.
Bob was already thinking about the interview and knew he had to look presentable. ‘Mrs Trent, could I possibly borrow these clothes for tomorrow? Jim is going to arrange an interview for me with his boss. They need a stable boy, and if I’m lucky, I might get the job.’
‘The clothes are yours now, Bob. You don’t have to return them.’
‘But . . .’ He was immediately worried. ‘I can’t afford to pay for them.’
‘It’s been my pleasure to give them to you, dear boy. I don’t want to take your hard-earned money for them. They were only sitting upstairs doing nothing.’ She poured the tea and cut them both a large slice of cake. ‘I’ll leave that here so you can help yourselves. Oh, yes,’ she turned to Bob. ‘Did I hear you say you couldn’t stay more than one night?’
‘That’s right, Mrs Trent. As much as I would like to, I’m afraid it just isn’t possible.’
‘Anything is possible if you set your mind to it. Once you get that job you’ll be able to be my permanent guest, like Jim here.’ She smiled happily at both of them. ‘I’ll love having two such fine young men to look after. Now, don’t you worry, Bob, it will all work out.’
As she left the room, Bob sat down again and closed his eyes for a moment to gain control of his emotions. He still felt uneasy about leaving his father to cope on his own, but some kind guiding hand had led him to this, and he was grateful for the kindness being shown him.
‘Don’t get your hopes up too much, Bob,’ Jim said quietly. ‘I will recommend you, but it will be the captain’s decision. I can’t guarantee anything, you understand?’
Bob opened his eyes and smiled. ‘I know, but it’s a chance, and I thank you for that.’
‘You’re obviously a Londoner, so what brings you to Kent?’
‘Work is hard to come by where I lived, so I thought there might be more chance in another part of the country.’ Bob pulled a face. ‘And this was as far as my money would take me.’
‘Which part of London are you from?’
‘Oh, around the docks, and there’s too many men chasing too few jobs. There wasn’t anything to keep me there, so I left.’
Bob took a bite of the cake and shook his head, changing the subject. ‘Mrs Trent’s a good cook, isn’t she?’
Jim took the hint, dropped the subject, and helped himself to another cup of tea. He talked about his work at the stables until it was time to retire.
As soon as Bob settled in the clean, comfortable bed, exhaustion sent him into a deep sleep almost at once.
The next morning Bob was at the imposing house well before the appointed time. The place was huge, and the land appeared to stretch as far as the eye could see and beyond. This wasn’t a titled family, but they were obviously very wealthy.
A butler showed him to a room downstairs and told him he would be called when Captain Russell was ready to see him.
Unable to relax he prowled the room, inspecting every picture and piece of furniture, marvelling at the fine workmanship of every item. There had to be a fortune in this one room, he decided, jumping as a voice spoke right behind him. The man moved without making a sound.
‘The master will see you now. Follow me.’
Bob did as ordered, and waited while the butler tapped on a door, opened it and walked in. He followed only a couple of steps inside the room and stopped in astonishment. The room was full of books, from floor to ceiling, and scattered around were small tables and dark red leather chairs. It was the most beautiful room Bob had ever seen in his life, but there was something that made him recoil.
When the butler announced him, he turned his attention to the man he was here to see. Sitting behind a large desk was a distinguished man with dark hair greying slightly at the temples. In front of him was a glass with some amber liquid in it, and there was no mistaking the strong smell of alcohol. It was something Bob was well acquainted with and was instantly on his guard.
‘Thank you, Green.’ Captain Russell turned his attention to Bob. ‘What is your name?’
‘Robert Hunter, sir.’
The captain drained his glass and held it out to Bob. ‘Pour me another whisky. The decanters are on the table by the window.’
‘No, sir!’ Bob didn’t move, knowing that he had just ruined any chance he had of getting this job. The disappointment was crushing, but he would never lift a finger to help any man drink, especially at this time in the morning.
‘What did you say?’ The captain’s eyes narrowed as he stood up, swaying slightly.
‘I said I wouldn’t get you another drink, sir. I mean no disrespect, but I won’t help you drink yourself senseless. It’s only ten o’clock, and I’d say you’ve had enough already.’
‘Oh, you would, would you?’
‘Yes, sir.’ Bob didn’t think there was much use minding his words. He’d wanted this job so much, but it was gone now, so he might as well have his say. ‘I’ve seen the despair drunkenness brings to a family. While you are drowning your senses in drink, those who love you suffer. You don’t need to do this. You have a beautiful home, and I expect there’s a family who care for you. Do you want to lose their love and respect? Because that is what will happen. Believe me, I know!’
When the captain just stared at his empty glass and said nothing, Bob turned and made to leave the room.
‘Where are you going?’
He turned back. ‘Leaving. You won’t employ me now.’
‘Don’t you want this job?’
‘Then sit down. I haven’t dismissed you yet.’