Authors: June Francis
Dedicated to May Lilian and Irene May with love
‘The secret sympathy,
The silver link, the silken tie,
Which heart to heart, and mind to mind,
In body and in soul can bind.’
Sir Walter Scott,
The Lay of the Last Minstrel
Also by June Francis
About the Author
Vivien Preston lifted her head and stared at the man in the bed. His face and neck were so wrinkled that he reminded her of a tortoise. ‘Yes, Father,’ she said, knowing it would only make her grandfather agitated if she said that she was not his elder daughter. Lucid moments were few and far between and most times Jack Preston had no idea who she was. Sometimes he was back in the previous century when he was a boy and believed Viv to be his sister, but today it seemed be thought she was his daughter.
She knelt by the side of the bed, her long
hair veiling her face, and listened to Jack Preston’s laboured breathing. The doctor had said she could put her grandfather in a home but she had known his feelings on that subject and had decided that, however difficult, she would
continue to look after him so that he could die in his own bed.
An eyelid quivered and lifted. ‘You’ll look after your mother and little Flora now, Hilda girl? I won’t be away long this trip.’ The voice was thread-like.
‘You know where the money is if you need it? Take one of the coins to the pawnbroker’s.’
Involuntarily Viv glanced at her cousin George Cooke, standing by the window overlooking the street. His eyes were suspiciously bright and his hands clenched into fists. His grandfather’s favourite, George had found it unbearably difficult to accept that the old man no longer recognised him when he had finished his National Service and arrived back home in Liverpool.
‘How many times has Grandfather asked that question about money? And I’ve still no idea where he kept it,’ Viv whispered to him.
It seemed that George was about to say something but the old man spoke again, drawing her attention. ‘You’re not like your mother, girl!’ His eyes, dredged of their once rich brown colour, were now pale and watery.
‘What?’ she said, startled.
mother. She was a tough old bird. Nothing ever scared her.’ He paused and
seemed to be gathering his strength. ‘Where are you, girl? You know Mam said you weren’t to go wandering off!’
Viv’s heart beat rapidly and tears suddenly prickled in her eyes. He was back to his boyhood again. ‘I’m here, Jack,’ she said.
‘You mustn’t go off. You know it worries Mam.’ His voice was tremulous now and weak. ‘You be a good girl and stay out of trouble.’
‘Yes, Jack,’ she whispered.
Silence fell. It went on and on and suddenly it seemed that Grandfather was hardly breathing.
George came over to the bed and knelt beside Viv. ‘Do you reckon this is it?’ His voice was unsteady.
She slipped her hand into his, unable to speak for the tightness in her throat. Once before they had seen a member of their family die and it had been a terrible moment. This was different, though. Rosie had been so young. Their grandfather was full of years and well past his three score and ten.
‘Should I go for the doctor again?’ whispered George.
‘No, stay! What can the doctor do now?’
He nodded and a sigh escaped him as the pair of them continued to kneel side by side. They looked noticeably alike, the children of Jack Preston’s two daughters, both now living in America. George’s mother Flora lived on the west coast but Viv’s
mother Hilda had made her home in New Jersey on the east coast. It was eight years since Viv had seen her mother. She had been nine years old when Hilda had crossed the Atlantic alone, glad to leave behind a war-damaged Liverpool. She still found it difficult to forgive her mother for that final
. Hilda was the black sheep of the family, having disgraced the family name by giving birth to Viv without the benefit of a husband and without naming the father of her child. Jack Preston had banished her from the house though now he had no memory of it, just as he had forgotten that he had so often called Viv ‘Hilda’s bastard’.
It was two years since she had volunteered to live with her grandfather, so enabling her aunt to go to California with her second husband Mike, an American ex-serviceman, and their three young children. Before senility had destroyed her grandfather’s health and memory, his disapproval of Viv had been like a weapon he wielded to try and strip her of confidence. She had fought back, determined not to let him make her feel worthless. Yet still she found it hard to cope with the tasks that she had had to perform for Jack and which he obviously hated her doing. She had so wanted his affection, approval and appreciation. He had stubbornly refused to show anything of the sort and there had been times when she had come near to hating him.
But the earlier upbringing which her aunt had given her had stressed the importance of family. You should always be able to fall back on your family, whatever the sin, her aunt had dinned into her. Viv could only agree with her. After all, where would she have been if Aunt Flora had not taken her family responsibilities so seriously? She had been more of a mother to Viv than Hilda had ever been.
She still remembered the blazing row over a man that the sisters had had before her mother stormed out of Flora’s house. Hilda had returned a year or two later but the incident and her desertion of Viv had left a wound that refused to heal with time. Hilda had married disastrously, only to be widowed, and then vanished once more from her daughter’s life, emigrating to America. Since then Viv only heard from her mother at Christmas and occasionally on her birthday. She had remarried in America but not once had she asked her daughter to go and live with her. Many times Viv had yearned for such an invitation but it had never come.
‘How much longer do you think?’
Viv gave her cousin a sidelong glance as he squeezed her hand. ‘I don’t know. But surely it can’t be much longer? Perhaps if we prayed …’
‘Prayed what? That he gets better!’ hissed George, going a dull red. Any mention of God or religion was like a red rag to a bull since George’s
childhood sweetheart had thrown him over and become a nun.
‘No, that he dies.’
Her cousin looked shocked but Viv did not care. Her life had been put on hold for the last two years. She stared down at her grandfather, praying that he would go peacefully, and hoped that God would forgive her. Enough was enough. It would be a blessing if this time he did not make a recovery. She and George needed to start living their own lives. Often of late her grandfather had made her think too much of the past and the part her mother had played in it. It was the future that interested Viv. Painful memories of her mother had no place in that.
The guests had finished the funeral feast and departed. Viv was kneeling in front of the large, old-fashioned black leaded fireplace toasting a crumpet because she had been too busy and fraught to feel hungry earlier. She glanced up as George entered the room and saw that the sombrely dressed stranger of earlier in the day had vanished. He had changed out of his black suit into paint-stained cords and a checked shirt. It seemed that the old easygoing George, her hero of years gone by, was back.
He knelt behind her, slid his arms over her shoulders and nuzzled her neck.
‘Don’t, George.’ She brushed away one of his hands which was too close to her breast. ‘I’m not going to be a substitute for Kathleen Murphy so don’t start messing about. You can butter this crumpet for us. I’m starving.’
‘Me too. I couldn’t eat before. I hated the whole shebang.’ He straightened up rather unsteadily, having drunk a little too much on an empty stomach.
‘You found it harder than I did.’ It was a statement of fact. Viv reached for the butter dish which stood ready on the hearth.
‘I wish I could have said goodbye properly to him. The man I’d known died while I was away.’ George’s expression was sombre.
Viv nodded. ‘Still, he didn’t suffer.’ She moved to sit down in the old rocking chair.
George leant one elbow on the mantel shelf. ‘I kept wishing that Mam could have been here – and your mam!’
Viv grimaced. ‘Fat chance when she still hasn’t got in touch! But at least Aunt Flo will be pleased when we tell her how many people turned up to give Grandfather a good Orange send off. Although I can’t really be doing with all that Orange and Green stuff myself.’
‘Mam’d be pleased about the anchor of flowers you had made up for him. It was just right. Grandad’s weighed anchor and set sail for the blue yonder. He might be through the Pearly Gates right now.’
Viv smiled faintly. ‘You’re sounding quite poetic and religious. I thought you’d finished with religion since Kathleen?’
‘You’re daft if you think Kathleen means anything to me,’ he said with a sudden spurt of anger. ‘I’m over her.’
Viv stared at him but kept quiet and bit into the crumpet. Butter oozed out and she licked it up with her tongue. There was silence for a moment then George said, ‘I wonder if your mam actually knows about Grandad yet? I mean, we phoned my mam and she said she’d let Aunt Hilda know, but she also said she hadn’t heard from her for a while.’
‘That’s nothing unusual with my mother,’ said Viv drily. ‘And if she does find out, she won’t care.’
‘You’re hard on her,’ he said absently, gazing into the fire. ‘Mam mentioned Rosie’s grave. Did you remember …?’
‘Flowers?’ She nodded.
‘Thanks, Viv.’ He had a smile of singular charm which still occasionally had the power to turn her heart over in her breast. He was very good-looking. The spitting image of his father who had been killed in the war, so her aunt had said. Tawny hair, brown eyes, an aquiline nose – which sometimes he looked down rather haughtily at her – and a stubborn, square chin. The smile gave way to a more hesitant expression and he said, ‘I haven’t told you before but Grandad wrote to me while I was away. You’d told me that he was starting to
go a bit funny so I didn’t take what he had said seriously at the time. But thinking about it now, Viv, there might have been something in what he wrote in that letter.’
‘What?’ She was suddenly alert.
‘You can’t have forgotten the way he went on about the money and coins? He wrote me that he’d buried a box of gold sovereigns. I thought he was going doolally.
and all that! But maybe there was something in it and he wasn’t completely gone …’
Viv got to her feet. ‘Well, where is it?’ she demanded.
Suddenly George laughed and the sound seemed to banish the gloom that had enveloped them all day. ‘Follow me!’
They filed out into the white-washed backyard. Next to the old pigeon hutch some slabs of sandstone had been taken up and in the summer the yard was bright with pansies, snapdragons and marigolds. There was also a solitary little wooden cross set apart from the bedding plants.
‘Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest, yo-
!’ sang George as he tossed the cross aside and plunged a trowel into the soil.
‘I thought his favourite pigeon was buried there,’ said Viv, glancing at the wall they shared with next door and then up at the windows of the yellow brick houses in the next street which
overlooked their yard, hoping that nobody was watching and thinking they’d gone crackers.
‘X marks the spot, Viv.’ George flung the trowel aside and she drew closer as he lifted out a
They exchanged glances. ‘It’s real,’ she said in an awe-filled whisper. ‘It
.’ Her cousin laughed loudly. ‘Well, Grandad was an old sea dog!’ He brushed soil from the box and wiped his hands on his trousers before turning the key in the lock. The lid fell back and off its rusting hinges to reveal a handful of gleaming gold coins and a couple of plaster figures.
Viv groaned. ‘It’s hardly a fortune, is it?’ Trust her grandfather to disappoint them.
George stared dumbfounded at the figures he held in each hand. ‘Do you see what these are? One’s some bloody saint and the other’s the Virgin Mary! Now who do we know that’s Catholic?’
Viv was about to say ‘Kathleen Murphy’ and tell him that she had called while he was away and Viv herself had been out, but before she had a chance her cousin said, ‘The bloody Kellys next door!’ And he was off, storming into the house.
She flew after him but did not catch him up until he was through the house and into the street. She seized his arm. ‘George, I think you’re wrong. Kathleen was here!’
He stared at her but barely paused. ‘You’ve got
Kathleen on the brain. You know the Kellys didn’t like Grandad!’
‘They put money in the street collection for a wreath for him,’ Viv said staunchly. ‘Mrs Dermot told me. That proves something, George.’
‘Proves they’ve got guilty consciences,’ he said stubbornly, wrenching his arm free and striding up to the blue and white painted door with its border of painted bricks to match. ‘Bloody Evertonians,’ he muttered, and banged the brightly polished brass door knocker several times.
Viv realised instantly that it was more than the money being missing and the drink that was affecting him. He’d been spoiling for some action ever since he came home. Kathleen throwing him over and then Grandad not knowing him had hurt him deeply. He was like a wounded animal wanting to hit out at someone. Anyone!
The door was opened by a young man wearing an open-necked shirt and trousers. ‘Yep?’ He rested a shoulder against the doorjamb. ‘What can I do for yer, Cookie?’
‘You can take this,’ said George, and punched him on the nose, sending him tumbling backwards through the open vestibule door.
Viv rushed forward and bent over Joe while George, swaying slightly, blew on his knuckles. Unexpectedly a khaki handkerchief was thrust into her hand. She looked up at the figure that
towered over her. He was dressed all in black. ‘Darkly, devilishly attractive’, her friend Dot would have said, because his hair was black also and the eyebrows that slanted up at the outer edges were sooty slashes. His eyes, though, were bright blue and appraised her briefly before he stepped past.
Instinctively she ducked as his arm swung back and his fist slammed into her cousin’s midriff. Fury bubbled inside Viv and she hit the stranger in the chest. ‘What the hell do you think you’re doing, hitting my cousin?’
He seized her hand. ‘What the hell is
doing hitting my mate without provocation?’
Some of her anger evaporated. ‘OK,’ she muttered. ‘You’ve got a point there.’
‘He’s quite drunk, you know,’ she said placatingly. ‘And we’ve had a hard day of it.’
‘We all have hard days. That doesn’t mean we go around taking it out on people.’
‘You don’t understand’
‘I’d rather not.’ Viv was thinking that he had a nice smile. She pulled herself together. ‘It’s none of your business, really, is it?’
‘It’s mine, though,’ came Joe’s muffled voice.
‘It was a mistake,’ said Viv, slanting a glance at him. ‘You’re not missing any holy figures in your house, are you, Joe?’
‘How the hell should I know?’ he cried, looking baffled. ‘I’ve not been home five minutes from the army. Is it something to do with your grandad? Mam said he’d gone doolally!’
‘I don’t believe my grandad was doolally when he wrote me that letter,’ gasped George, deciding to take part in the conversation.
‘What letter?’ said Joe. ‘And what’s holy figures to do with you hitting me?’
‘Don’t tell him, Viv,’ said George hurriedly.
‘I’m not going to,’ she said, aware that the stranger still had hold of her hand. She attempted to free her fingers but he seemed reluctant to release her and she did not want to struggle in an undignified way. She looked at her cousin. ‘Let’s go home, George. We should never have come. You wouldn’t have if you weren’t drunk.’
‘I’m not drunk!’ he said, flashing her an exasperated look while still clutching his midriff. ‘Keep out of this, Viv. What are you trying to make me look like? A bloody fool?’
‘You are a fool,’ she snapped, suddenly losing her temper. ‘Why don’t you just say you’re sorry?’
‘Sorry?’ yelled her cousin. ‘Why should I? And it’s me who should be getting an apology. Joe should fight his own battles.’
‘You took me by surprise! Anyway, Brycie’s a mate,’ said Joe. ‘He was sticking up for me, just like Viv’s sticking up for you.’
‘She’s family. Who’s this Brycie?’ George glared at the stranger. ‘I think I’ve seen you before and I didn’t like you then!’
‘Oh, stop it,’ said Viv, avoiding the stranger’s aroused glance as she finally released her fingers. ‘If he says he’s sorry you’ll call it quits, won’t you?’
‘If that’s what you want.’ His voice held no trace of a Liverpudlian accent. ‘What do you say, Joe?’
‘Hey, hang on,’ put in George. ‘You did say Brycie? I used to know a Nick Bryce once.’
There was a brief silence.
‘George Cooke,’ said Nick, his voice expressionless. ‘Well, who’d have believed it?’
‘You know each other?’ demanded Viv.
‘From the old street.’ George’s tone held a wary note. ‘We almost killed each other once.’
‘You asked for it.’ Nick’s smile held a certain grimness.
There was silence before Viv murmured, ‘A draw, was it, and neither of you willing to admit it?’
‘You could say that,’ murmured Nick. ‘One of the neighbours threw a bucket of water over us. Nothing like the shock of cold water to stop you in your tracks.’
‘It was you that started it,’ said George, sticking out his chin, an implacable expression on his face.
‘I disagree. It was you insulting my mother that caused it,’ said Nick.
‘I was only a kid,’ said George, shifting uncomfortably. ‘Nick nodded. ‘Cruel little swines, kids.’ There was another silence.
‘It must have been a long time ago. Why don’t you forget it?’ said Viv, thinking this could go on all day with them getting nowhere. Men! ‘Or are you going to make it a lifelong vendetta?’
A corner of Nick’s mouth lifted and his blue eyes scanned her again. ‘It’s hardly a vendetta. But I’m prepared to let bygones be bygones.’
Her cousin shrugged. ‘Suits me.’
‘Good!’ She smiled. ‘Well, if you two aren’t going to kill each other, I’ll leave you to catch up on what’s been happening during the last few years.’
‘Surely there’s no rush for you to go?’ There was no mistaking Nick’s interest and Viv felt herself blushing. She thought, I bet he’s used to girls falling all over him. Well, she wasn’t going to. ‘I’ve things to do,’ she said firmly. ‘We’ve just had a funeral.’
‘Pity,’ he murmured. ‘I’d like to further our acquaintance.’
‘Some other time,’ she said, assuming a casual manner.
She went back to the house with a sigh of relief, wondering what had caused her to feel so wobbly about the knees.
She brought in the box from the yard to count the sovereigns. There were footsteps outside and George let himself in with the key on the string behind the front door. ‘You were quick,’ she said.
‘Had to ask them to go for a pint later. Thought I should do something to make it up to Joe. They’re both just out of the army.’ He stood staring at her, humming tunelessly. ‘How many sovereigns are there?’
‘There should have been hundreds,’ he said gloomily. ‘I suppose Grandad was doolally.’
Viv said thoughtfully, ‘I’m not so sure. At least what he wrote in the letter about burying the box with sovereigns was true. What if he was worried about someone seeing him and decided to divide the money and put some elsewhere?’
‘You mean he could have done that and then forgotten where?’
‘Where d’you suggest?’
‘We could start with his bedroom?’
George’s eyes brightened. ‘Right, you’re on!’
She rose and followed him upstairs. They began to search but found nothing.
Eventually George rested his back against the door and lit a cigarette. ‘There’s nothing here. I suppose we’ll have to forget it.’
Vivien sighed and went over to the window. She thought how great it would have been to have spare cash to buy some decent clothes and perhaps to go to America. Her aunt had suggested them doing so for Christmas.
She stared out of the window. It was getting dark. Her grandfather had seemed to love watching the sky. In his lucid moments he had told her never to close his curtains and she had got into the habit of doing what he said. She had not washed them for an age. Now she tugged on the
fabric. It felt heavier than it should have. She fingered the hems, remembering her sailor grandfather had been skilful with a needle and thread. Her spirits soared. ‘Scissors!’ she cried.
‘Six hundred sovereigns! I can’t believe it!’ George danced her round and round the kitchen, hugged and kissed her, then danced her round again. ‘I can go off and paint! I can go to Paris! We’ll have to have a party before I go!’