Authors: Elizabeth Gill
First published in Great Britain in 1999 by Hodder and Stoughton
This ebook edition published in Great Britain in 2013 by
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Copyright © 1999 Elizabeth Gill
The moral right of Elizabeth Gill to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
ISBN 978 1 78206 177 9
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places and events are either the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
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It was a cold wet November afternoon when Abby Reed’s mother died. The doctor had said she would probably go quietly in the night, but Bella Reed had never done anything quietly. She clutched the lapels of the doctor’s jacket, her thin hands like chicken claws, and begged him not to let her leave this world and, though he had looked shocked, fifteen-year-old Abby could only agree with her mother. It was all very well for those who were convinced of paradise, but her mother knew that there was nothing beyond a box in the ground of the local cemetery and it was hardly a prospect to be faced with equanimity.
‘My dear lady,’ he said, ‘you must prepare to meet your maker. There is nothing more that I can do.’
‘Idiot!’ she said, falling back onto her pillows. ‘Get him out of here, Abby, I don’t want him at my damned deathbed!’
The doctor, shocked even further at the dying mother’s foul mouth, almost ran. Abby could have told him it was nothing special. Her father proudly said of her mother that she swore better than any docker. Abby didn’t see him out; she stood in the gloom at the top of the staircase which dominated their house and Kate, their maid, appeared from the kitchen to deal with the doctor and the door.
Wind and rain bespattered the entrance hall and the doctor stood for a moment before he faced the darkness. It was past four
o’clock and the weather had ensured that what light there had been had gone as the afternoon started. Kate struggled to shut the door and Abby went back to her mother. The room was cosy. She had lit the lamps and the fire had been on in there not just all day but for many weeks while Bella’s illness progressed. Bella was lying with her eyes closed.
‘I’m here.’ She went over to the bed, sat down and clasped her mother’s hand.
‘I love you.’
Tears rose in Abby’s eyes and in her nose and in her mouth and seemingly everywhere. Her mother did what they called in the area ‘naming a spade a bloody shovel’; she always said what she meant. Other people might skirt around a subject, but Bella never did. Abby had been astonished as a small child that other mothers did not treat their children with open affection, that they did not spend time with them, that they did not appear to have any joy in them, but she had always known because her mother had always told her and always shown her. They both knew that Abby would never hear the words again on Bella’s lips.
‘You mean more to me than anything in this world. You’ve given me more pleasure than you could possibly imagine. I’m not afraid of death, I just don’t want to leave you. Come closer.’
Abby kissed her thin cheek and Bella put a hand on her head.
Her mother didn’t even ask for her father. Since her illness, he had taken refuge in his work. Abby didn’t blame him for that. There was nothing he could do and to stay around his wife’s bedroom would have been an admission of her coming death on both their parts. He would be back soon, Abby thought, and there was life in her mother yet. They would have time to say goodbye. She lay for a little while with her head on the pillow beside her mother. She had not slept properly in several days and nights and she was so exhausted that she let herself drift for a while. Suddenly she heard the door. She had not expected to feel
relief and, when she did, got up to meet her father. It was only then that she saw his gaze was fixed on her mother.
‘She didn’t stay for me,’ he said.
The weather retreated for the funeral, but the cemetery was slippery with mud. Abby had insisted on going even though the old Northumbrian way was for the men to go; the women would stay behind and prepare the tea. Her father needed her there. She was his only child and, even though people might look disapprovingly, she didn’t care. She held up her head and clasped her father’s arm.
It was easier when they got back to the house. They lived in Jesmond, one of the more prosperous areas of Newcastle, in a big semi-detached villa not far from the cricket ground. People were packed in to show their respect. Henderson Reed was a shipbuilder, not the biggest on the Tyne, but well known. Abby helped to dispense tea. It stopped her thinking about her mother.
Charlotte Collingwood, wife of William Collingwood, who was the biggest shipbuilder on the Tyne, came to her. Abby had tried to avoid her. Charlotte was a pretty woman of forty who had given her husband two sons, but Abby despised her. She sat at the top of Newcastle society in a way that Abby’s mother had once likened to ‘a fairy with a Christmas tree stuck up her arse’ and Abby had never forgotten it. Charlotte had come from a top family, a branch of the Surtees who owned land and many fine houses, but William Collingwood had made his way up the social ladder. He was nothing more than the son of a boat builder. Charlotte had been well bred but penniless and now enjoyed fine clothes, a huge country house and more money than she could spend. She had never read a book in her life. Abby treasured her mother’s books.
‘You must come to us for Christmas,’ Charlotte said. ‘The boys will be home from school and we’ll be having a party. I
know you won’t feel much like parties, but the change would do you good.’
Abby felt guilty then. Charlotte was being generous, and she could imagine lots of things worse than seeing Edward Collingwood again. He was eighteen, fair and handsome. He went to a top public school, he was well spoken, beautifully mannered and rumoured to be very clever. The younger boy, Gil, as far as Abby could judge, was the opposite: dark, stupid and sullen. He was just a bit older than Abby. They had long ignored one another but, thinking of Edward and wanting to distance herself from her mother’s death, Abby was inclined to agree at once. The idea of spending Christmas alone here with her father and the servants did not appeal, though perhaps he would think differently.
Charlotte asked Henderson. He seemed agreeable and Abby knew a lightness that she hadn’t felt for months. Bella had struggled with her illness, only giving in when she could fight it no more. It had been a long and dreary autumn and Abby thought that her mother would not have wanted her to grieve further. She had known that her mother was dying; her grieving was almost done. It would do her father good to get away from the house and shipyard for a few days.
The days before Christmas were short and wet and empty. Abby missed her mother all the time and wanted to weep but she couldn’t; it was as though a door had closed between her tears and her eyes and even when she ached to cry, she couldn’t. She did her best to look after her father and cheerfully presided over meals which neither of them ate. She was tired, but when she lay down to sleep at nights, thoughts of her mother flooded her mind and gave her no rest. Everyone else seemed so cheerful because it was Christmas, wishing each other all the best. Carol singers came to the door. It even snowed. Abby thought of her mother lying in the cemetery with a fine white layer of frozen water above her and no future.
It was therefore with relief, just after midday on Christmas Eve, that Abby and her father drove the several miles out of
Newcastle to the mansion which William Collingwood had built a dozen years ago when he became rich. Abby did not think about the Northumberland countryside; she was used to the big farms and wide fields. Castles were commonplace here, the kind of fortifications which had helped to keep out the Picts and Scots and Border Reivers at different times. Some of the farms had half-ruined towers or castles right beside the house, which might have looked strange to foreign eyes but were usual to those who knew the area. It was prosperous: the fences were mended; the walls were straight and safe; the roads were good.
Bamburgh House was a monstrosity, Abby thought as they pulled in at the gates of the long mile drive. It could have been beautiful; the honey-coloured stone had been quarried from right beside it, but the architect had been having some kind of love affair with Greece. Four enormous pillars obscured the front of the house. It managed to look stately in the slight covering of snow, but Abby was not deceived. She had been there before and thought it the most stiff, unfriendly house she had ever seen in her life. In the summer great arrangements of flowers stood to attention in huge vases in all the rooms. Everything was swept clean; no dusty cupboards in Charlotte’s house. The maids were uniformed and unsmiling. The food was always lavish and overdone, so that it put you off before you started, and Charlotte was fond of table centres such as iced swans and animals made from chocolate and marzipan. Neither William nor his wife had any taste. The house, though huge, was filled with furniture. There was not a corner that had not its share of paintings and ornaments and dead animals in glass cases or their heads on the wall. There were tiger rugs and elephants’ feet and stuffed birds. It was an animals’ cemetery, Abby thought with a little shiver, and the furniture was uncomfortable, all gilt and velvet, short-backed sofas and shallow chairs. Sometimes Abby was ashamed to be there considering that she was aware of how badly paid and housed were William’s shipyard workers – her father was always saying so.
It could have been no pleasure to work in that house, because none of the servants ever looked happy, not like Kate and Mrs Wilkins at home, sitting by the kitchen fire no doubt and enjoying the cake and sherry and beef which her father’s money had bought for them. She had made sure they had generous presents that Christmas because they had been kind to her all that time when her mother was ill. Abby had been glad also that her father had provided a big dinner for all his workers, gifts for their wives and children in the form of foodstuffs and confectionery and a bigger paypacket than usual for all the men. Some of them drank their money, which was why her mother had in previous years insisted that their families should be given gifts directly as well as extra money. Abby had made sure that this year was even better for them. They should not feel the difference because her mother was dead.
In the huge entrance hall of Bamburgh House stood the largest Christmas tree that Abby had ever seen, glowing with candles. Holly festooned every corner and mistletoe peeped out here and there among the red berries and green thorns. The weather did its best to help, freezing neatly so that the snow turned solid and wet trees glittered as though somebody had put them in just the right place to catch the winter sunlight. Huge fires burned in the rooms. Throughout the afternoon, people arrived and everyone was to stay, some of them for several days.
Abby began to enjoy herself, to be pleased at the dress she had brought. An excited hum came from having so many people in the house and there were wonderful smells and sounds between dining-room and kitchen. Maids went to and fro downstairs until the long tables were laden. Musicians arrived and began to make music in the ballroom. Abby glimpsed Edward, but of Gil there was no sign. A little maid came to help Abby dress. She was very young and chattered more than she should have done, but Abby didn’t mind, and it was of her that she enquired for the other boy. The girl’s face paled.