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Authors: Rose Tremain

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BOOK: Sadler's Birthday
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The service was nearly over. The sermon had been short – as it always was because the rector had varicose veins and didn't like to stand for long, especially in summer. Annie hadn't heard a word of it. And Joe, too, had been absorbed by Annie, watching her head as she knelt down to say prayers, noticing how very silently her body moved. Once, during the sermon, he'd turned to her and seeing her eyes all ashine had felt a sudden dread and turned away.
But he wanted her. Not for a year or more had he felt as urgent a desire for a girl as he felt for Annie Sadler. He believed she was his discovery and that this gave him an absolute right to her. For hadn't he, in seeing her beauty, made it flower? No other man had ever seen in her what he saw, he was sure. They had passed her in the street, at the market, in church, but not looked, not
seen
. He'd have to be careful, of course, not to fill her head with romantic dreams, but he'd have her all right, if he jostled time a little. Her eyes told him she fancied herself in love. All that had to be done now was to weave a labyrinth where, believing herself lost, she'd run to him.
Outside the church, he put his hand under her elbow and they made silent progress up the street, not touching after they left the churchyard, nor looking at one another.
‘I'll be seeing you, Annie,' said Joe when they reached Annie's door, and he walked off quickly before she could ask him when.
For Annie the summer now lay in abeyance. July came, with another spell of hot weather, but Annie stayed indoors mostly in the dark parlour. She believed now that she had been wrong: Joe had felt nothing for her. So silly of her, so like the plain virgin she was to have interpreted his friendliness as love. Each morning when she got up, early these days, woken by the sun, she took off her nightdress and looked critically at her body in the mirror, wondered how it could be changed to fulfil the role God in His unwisdom had fashioned it for. Only a week or two ago, on the day of the picnic, she had been quite pleased with it, felt it move with joy. Now it angered her, thin straight thing that it was, feeling passion and yet exciting none, and the future made her feel afraid. She had been cheated; she would grow old untouched.
Her head began to fill with plans. She would try once more. She would go down to fetch the smock one evening when Joe was home. She would buy a new dress, she'd ask her father for the money. Then she put the plan aside. Joe would know she had only come to see him. He would despise her. And what if, after all, Joe had a girlfriend? She might be there when Annie called, sitting at the family table, accepted, loved. She might be beautiful. No, Annie wouldn't call in. She'd tell Betsy about the smock and Betsy would tell Joe and he would bring it up one evening, while there was still daylight enough to go for a walk round the town. But then why indeed should Joe choose to take her for a walk, and even if he did, what could she say to him?
Greg Sadler noticed a sullenness in his daughter and he understood the reason for it. He was too wise to think of meddling, too loving not to feel sad. If things continued as they were, it might be better after all to send Annie to London. She could be found domestic work there and her aunt would take care of her and help her to settle down. But Greg hated to think of sending her away. For the first time for some weeks he began thinking about his wife, wishing she were there so that Annie, who kept some things secret from him, might talk to her.
Across the road, Betsy's mother still lay in her sickroom. The doctor was very worried, so Greg had heard, and, looking up at her window with its drawn curtains day after day Greg believed she was dying. He went to see her. He took her some of his wallflowers.
‘They're lovely, dear,' she said. ‘That's always been one of my favourites.'
‘How are you feeling, Mrs Elkins?'
‘Oh not so bad, dear, thank you. A little better today. It's my chest, you see.'
She was very white – yellow white – and her eyes were tired. ‘I have a bother sleeping,' she said.
Betsy was sitting by the window. No ribbons or smiles today, only a wan little face and nervous hands twisting a pocket handkerchief in her lap.
‘How's your cousin, Betsy?' Greg asked her. ‘Settled in yet?'
‘Oh yes,' Betsy said, ‘he's working for Farmer James.'
‘He's been to see you, has he?' Greg asked Mrs Elkins.
‘What, love?'
‘Joe. Cousin Joe. He been up to see you?'
‘Oh yes.'
‘He comes every evening,' said Betsy.
Greg sat down next to Betsy. He was tempted, in that quiet room, to tell her about Annie. But he stopped himself. Don't you meddle, Greg Sadler, he told himself. He stayed till he fancied Mrs Elkins was getting tired, stayed and chatted about the things in his garden. Then he got up and left. On the way downstairs he shuddered.
Then when he got home, Annie greeted him with a smile – the first smile for days, it seemed to Greg.
‘Joe Elkins called while you were out, Dad. He brought my smock.'
The smock had been quite useful to Joe. He had let a good fortnight pass after he'd seen Annie in church and then judged the time right for a visit. He knew it was no good letting girls like Annie Sadler come home to meet his parents. Hardly into the front room and they began to get notions about becoming part of the family. That had happened once before, with a publican's daughter in Colchester called Faith. And you couldn't take them presents or be really nice to them or you'd find you'd get no more than a kiss without a great promising of eternal love and fidelity. And just to say those things made you feel old. But he wanted to see Annie. He thought he'd ask her would she fancy dropping by for a glass of wine after supper one evening. His parents spent most evenings with Betsy's mother nowadays, taking it in turns to sit with her. Joe would tell Annie that he was lonely.
And once the idea of asking her to come and see him had entered his mind, he found he didn't want to wait any longer. Annie had been there in his mind ever since the day of the picnic. He prided himself that he had handled the situation with care, nice to her one day, gone the next. By now, he told himself, she wouldn't know where she was with him. So the time had come to call.
When she answered the door to him, she had her apron on and her hair was wet, tied up in a towel. She blushed when she saw him, started to take her apron off.
‘May I come in, Annie?'
‘Of course. My Dad's over at Betsy's, though.'
‘I came to see you. I found this.' He held out the smock. ‘Isn't Betsy's, so I reckoned it should be yours.'
‘Yes. I left it in your porch, didn't I? Won't you come in? My Dad's made me a fire in the front room, to dry my hair.'
Joe sat down in one of the comfortable armchairs. Annie knelt on the hearthrug and began to unwind the towel from round her head.
‘You've been working hard, then?'
‘Oh, fairish.'
‘He's quite a bit of land, hasn't he, Mr James?'
‘Two hundred acres. I'll be busier come harvest time.'
‘I love the harvest.'
‘You could come up and give me a hand then.'
She looked up at Joe. Her wet hair was a dark, tangled mass. Joe likened her to a solemn little doll with twine for hair. He leant forward and twisted a strand of it round his finger, then he put his face very close to hers and began in a whisper: ‘Tell you what, Annie, I've been wanting to come and see you for a long, long time. And I was thinking, if you wouldn't mind a bit of a walk one evening, it'd be nice to drink a glass of wine with you at home. Would you like that? You see, you know Betsy's Mum's very poorly and needs someone with her all the time, so my mother and father are up with her most evenings and I'm on my own . . .'
Annie was very hot. She wanted to move away from the fire.
‘Yes, I'll come,' she said.
She went to Mrs Collard's the next day and bought herself a new dress. Blue, with a tight bodice. She couldn't pay for it and, knowing she'd soon have to lie to her father, couldn't ask him for the money. She paid ten shillings down and promised Mrs Collard the rest within two months.
Then one evening she cleared away the supper things and went and put her dress on. She had bought some matching ribbon and she made a little knot of her hair at the nape of her neck and tied the ribbon round it. She came downstairs and tiptoed to the front door, then called out to her father that she was going over to Betsy's and went out before he could answer her.
It had rained that afternoon and it was quite chilly outside, but the clouds had moved on, uncovering stars in their wake. There was scarcely anyone about as she hurried down the main street, only old Harry Brown, Mr James's bailiff, sitting on the stone cattle trough, sucking his pipe.
‘Evenin', Annie,' he mumbled.
‘Evening, Mr Brown.'
But on past him, not stopping for a chat, knowing old Harry Brown would have liked a chat, living alone as he did. But walking faster, almost running with her heart racing under the tight bodice of her dress. Down to the Post Office, past the line of cottages at the end of the street, past the rectory with its lovely iron gates, skirting the churchyard railings and then crossing the road, noticing a light in Joe's parlour window behind the red curtains and feeling suddenly very cold, starting to wish she hadn't come.
‘You've come, then?'
Annie was motionless outside the door, standing face to face with Joe and neither of them moving. Then Joe smiled.
‘Come in. It's cold out, isn't it?'
He put a hand on her arm, bringing her inside.
‘You're shivering.'
‘Oh it was quite chilly walking down. I didn't expect it or I'd have put a coat on.'
‘Well, I've got a fire going.'
He took her hand and led her into the lighted parlour. The apple logs he was burning made such a strong smell that Annie's girl's mind likened it to incense, suddenly saw herself as the novice, head bowed, her mind a whirlwind of prayer, being led step by step to God. But what a fanciful notion, that! And how silly Joe would think her if he knew.
He handed her a glass of sweet wine. Tiny little glass. Then he poured one for himself and gave her a smile as he took the first sip. Annie's hand was shaking as it held her glass. She spilt a drop of wine on to the velvet covered couch as she tried to drink.
‘Look what I've done.'
‘Won't show, will it? Same colour as the chair.'
Joe sat down on the couch and rubbed the drop of wine with his finger.
‘See.'
Annie smiled. Joe held out his hand to her.
‘Come and sit down by me, Annie.'
She sat down and Joe looked at her. He had been right. There was a kind of beauty in her. With the firelight – or perhaps it was the walk she'd just had – giving her cheeks a fine colour, her face looked rounder, softer. Joe closed his eyes. He couldn't talk to her, didn't even want to try. And yet he was conscious of the silence, of the clock ticking and knew that unless he talked to her she might be afraid, she might be so afraid that she would leave, just drink her wine and go home.
She was staring at the fire. Joe put his glass down and turned to her, taking her two hands, lifting her glass from the tight grip she had on it. Then he put his arms round her and kissed her forehead. Tiny beads of sweat glinted there and in the parting of her hair. He held her against him for a moment, then he kissed her mouth, tasting wine on her tongue. She clung to him, not moving, just clinging with her arms round his neck and her eyes wide open, staring into the firelight, full of wonder. Joe carried her gently off the couch and laid her down on the rug in front of the fire. Looking at her eyes, he felt afraid, dreaded to think what thoughts spun behind them, what fancies she lay conjuring. But he couldn't stop now. He had to have her now.
He undid her bodice, quickly, deftly, not looking at her face, then brought his head down between her breasts. So terribly still she lay, seeming to move when he looked again at her with the firelight dancing over her but not moving. Only her little hands clutching at the shirt on his back.
‘I won't hurt you, Annie,' Joe whispered. ‘I promise I won't hurt you.' Promise her ahything, he thought, promise her his soul, all for this moment.
‘Joe!' Annie cried, ‘say you love me.'
So he did.
On the last day of July, Betsy's mother died. Annie was there, sitting with Betsy, arm-in-arm by the window. They were talking in low voices, Betsy telling Annie about the job she was taking, working for Mrs Collard at ten shillings a week.
‘It's quite good money, you know,' she was saying, ‘and it'll be quite fun, won't it, doing a proper job?'
Mrs Elkins was lying on her back, sleeping. Her breathing was very loud. Then Betsy came to the end of her sentence and the two girls turned to look out of the window. It was the middle of the morning and very quiet in the street. But almost at the same moment they became aware of a sudden total silence. Betsy turned and looked at the bed, then buried her face in Annie's shoulder.
‘Annie, she's dead! I can't look, Annie, help me!'
‘It's all right, Bets.'
Annie cradled her friend's head, looked over it to the sleeping woman. She seemed exactly the same. Her eyes were shut and her mouth was open. Her breath was gone, that was all.
Annie led Betsy from the room. ‘Mr Elkins, please come!' she called.
They buried her a few days later, all the men in their Sunday black, and Joe, his hair cut for the occasion for some reason, looking much as he had looked that day in church. But not a word to Annie. Just a nod when he saw her standing there with her Dad. The merest nod, not even a smile. Annie's heart was cold. For just a few days Joe had been her lover, and now he had found another girl.
BOOK: Sadler's Birthday
5.3Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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