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Authors: Elizabeth Gill

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BOOK: Snow Angels
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She heard a movement behind her, jumped and turned around quickly. There was Gil. Abby couldn’t help feeling irritated. Did he have to be there every time she cried? Except that she was not crying, not quite. He was taller close to, much taller than she was. Slender and in expensive dark clothes and a white shirt, he matched the night, blended as if he wasn’t really there, just of her imagination. Abby couldn’t help but compare him with his brother and find Edward wanting. Gil really was very nice to look at.

‘You could have asked me to dance,’ she said.

‘Don’t know how.’

‘I got six boxes of handkerchiefs for Christmas. I didn’t realise they would be so useful.’ And she scrubbed at her face and looked at him. ‘Do you know how to make snow angels?’

‘What?’

She didn’t explain further. She stood with her feet together and her arms down by her sides and let herself fall straight back into the snow. Then she swept her arms and legs into a semicircle and got up carefully so as not to spoil the impression.

‘There,’ she said.

He smiled. It was not exactly an earth-shattering event, Abby thought. He contained it as though the effort of anything bigger would have been too much and it went almost as fast as it came, but she saw it.

‘Go on. then,’ she said, and to her surprise he did.

Gil got up and stood back and Abby looked approvingly at the impressions in the snow before they turned and walked back to the house, towards the music and the lights. Her mother would have been pleased, Abby thought, and she felt peaceful as she had not felt since her mother died.

Chapter One

They say that time heals, but it isn’t true. If anything, as you get further and further away from the death of the person you loved, so you see them more clearly, remember them more frequently, wish for them with an emptiness which gets bigger and bigger. Her father didn’t mention her mother’s name after a while, so that in a way Abby wished she could think of her mother as ‘Bella’ and that she could shout her name out when she went to the cemetery or when she stepped into a roomful of people. Nobody spoke of her. There was nothing left.

Rhoda Carlisle’s father died only a month after the Christmas party. Abby wrote, knowing exactly how Rhoda would feel because she had been close to her father. Abby remembered him. He was a botanist, a kind, unworldly man who cared for nothing but flowers and insects and butterflies. Although he came from a family with a great deal of money, he settled in a tiny dales town without society or worldliness and he had loved it there.

Rhoda soon had other problems. Within six months of her father’s death her mother had married again, the son of a local farmer, several years younger than she. People sniggered and said that Jos Allsop had married the silly woman for her money and that she had married him to warm her bed. Abby could only be thankful that her father had not been equally foolish, though she knew that he was lonely. He could easily have married again, he
was a prosperous, respected man. In the early days Abby had been fearful every time an eligible woman drew near, but it was as though he didn’t see them, as though Bella’s death had blinded him. And yet, Abby thought ruefully, he saw too much. Once, when they had come home from what had been an enjoyable party, he put his hand on her shoulder and said, ‘Don’t fret, lass, there’ll be no mistress here but thee.’

Abby stammered and disclaimed, said that she would be glad to welcome into the house anyone of his choice. He kissed her cheek.

‘Aye, well, some day.’

The day didn’t arrive and in the end Abby stopped watching for it, but she could not help shivering in gratitude when she met Rhoda and her mother in Newcastle one day and Rhoda’s mother was big with child. Rhoda looked ill, Abby thought, white and skinny. Her mother chattered nervously. Abby went home to a big fire and a pot of tea. When her father came back she kissed him and thought how lucky she was. They had tea together and sat over the fire and it was only then that Abby recognised the feeling in her. It was happiness.

Two or three times a year they went to stay with the Collingwoods. Edward and Toby Emory had gone to Oxford and there, according to Charlotte, Edward had taken everything before him. Toby didn’t care for Oxford – Abby had heard him say so a dozen times – but he stayed there to please his father. Abby understood why. She had met Toby’s parents, who were kind, intelligent people. They had six daughters; Toby, the youngest child, was their only son and they were proud of him. They had a foundry which made parts for ships and Toby would join his father in the business when he left university.

As for Gil, Abby couldn’t help herself about him. She tried to because he got nothing right. There were rumours that he had been asked to leave school, expelled, though Abby was not told why and Charlotte always said it was just that Gil wasn’t very bright. So he went to work instead of to Oxford. What he did
there Abby had no idea, because nobody told her. When they did meet he barely spoke to her. Other people might call him shy, but she didn’t believe that. The parties he was forced to go to did not make him dance or seek her out and pride forbade that she should go to him. Many were the parties when she danced and talked with other boys and missed him. Yet every time she tried to dismiss Gil from her consciousness, he did something to bring himself back to her.

She fell on the ice that first winter. He was there before anyone else and picked her up and carried her inside. The following summer, when somebody tried, to kiss her in the garden of a house where there was a birthday and Abby had objected, Gil pushed the other boy into a pond. Somehow, like a reluctant angel of mercy, he would appear during a crisis.

He grew tall and remote and other girls, thinking there was a mystery and conscious of how he looked and who he was, tried flirting and encouraging him. Abby could have told them it wouldn’t work. Even Mary Ann Emerson, who was beautiful and clever and whose father owned a Sunderland shipyard and who boasted that she could get Gil to kiss her, was forced to retreat with a red face and downcast mouth. The only way to deal with Gil was to ignore him. Sometimes, therefore, as they grew older Abby would stop talking to find him sitting or standing near, not joining in the conversation, just there, listening. She didn’t encourage him; she didn’t dare. Her father, more observant than most, said heavily, ‘I wouldn’t like that lad to get any ideas about you. There’s something about him that doesn’t please me.’

Abby was half-inclined to say ‘what lad?’ but she didn’t. In fact, she was rather pleased that it was so noticeable that Gil liked her.

‘He doesn’t have any ideas,’ she said.

‘Oh no? Still waters run deep, that’s what I say.’

Abby stopped herself from defending Gil.

‘He’s like his father,’ Henderson said. ‘I knew him when he was young: quiet and devious and, by God, he let nothing stand
in his way. He came from a nice family, his father built boats and they were respected, but he shook them off because they weren’t grand enough for his schemes. His poor mother broke her heart over it.’

Abby was about to reply briskly that Charlotte was unlikely to do so, but she caught her father’s eye and subsided. William Collingwood frightened Abby. Edward was like his mother, slight and fair and talkative. Gil was taller than his father by now, but he was dark like him. William was quiet and brooding and would brook no argument at home or at work. Her father called him ruthless, devious, and she well remembered the night in Gil’s bedroom, the mark on his face and the way that he moved so carefully.

Edward and Toby left Oxford and came north again to go into their fathers’ businesses. Abby thought that if she had been either one of their fathers, she would have detected a slight lack of enthusiasm. She thought how difficult it must be when you were a young man with ideas of your own and your father assumed that you would follow him into the business. She felt guilty on that count not being a boy, even though she knew that her parents had adored her. Her father had no one to go into the business after him and Abby could not help but be aware that in the way of men in business, he would have given much to have been able to write Reed & Son over the gates of his shipyard. She knew that her father and grandfather had been shrewd men, had bought up the land on either side of their shipyard for when they wanted to expand, but her father had not done so and she thought this could be because he was unsure of what would happen next. Abby had tried hard for some time when she was younger. She liked cricket. She liked to go and see her father in his office and play with the typewriters and give out the wages on a Friday when the men lined up at the open window of the office, but the actual design and building and business was something which held little interest for her. She had inherited her mother’s love of books, kitchens,
flowers and gardens and inevitably she spent a great deal of time with her mother.

Her father seemed interested in nothing but the business after her mother died. It even occurred to Abby that there was no reason why he should not marry and father a son so that the shipyard would go on and, although she would have hated it all, she could not in honesty deny that it would have been a good idea.

The world of shipbuilding went up and down like a seesaw, Abby knew, from years of listening to her father talk. There would be a depression, then things would begin to improve. Then, just when it seemed that things would be good for ever, everything would go down again. She was proud of her father: he was a just, even a generous, employer and he did everything he could to help those less fortunate. Gil’s father and the other shipbuilders paid their men as little as they could get away with, kept them in horrible little cottages beside the docks and did nothing to discourage drinking and immoral behaviour. When work was short they paid them off, to save their wages bills. How people lived in the meanwhile was not their concern.

Her father’s greatest pleasure was to discuss business. She thought it was all he had in common with William Collingwood, so they continued to be friends. Charlotte was inclined to favour Abby’s company. Sometimes she took her to see her family over at Hexham, a lovely town with an abbey and many fine houses in Tynedale, twenty miles to the west of Newcastle. Her immediate family had a huge house to keep going and no money, but some of her relations were rich and were the cream of county society. The head of the Surtees family in the area was called Robert. He had an estate in Northumberland and a house in London. Charlotte said that she had her eye on him for Abby.

Abby liked Robert Surtees. He talked to her, made her laugh. He was handsome, educated and had inherited everything early in life when his father died. He hunted, shot, fished, looked after his estate and spent the season in London and Paris. Abby noted
with some amusement that his family, even the poor ones, considered themselves above people like the Collingwoods and thought the way Charlotte spent money to be vulgar. Luckily Charlotte was oblivious to this. She visited Hexham in her shiny carriage, wearing long furs unless the weather was exceptionally warm, and expensive dresses, dripping with jewels and playing the fine lady. At one such event, Abby overheard a woman say to another, ‘She married a workman. My dear, what do you expect?’

It made Abby laugh to hear William Collingwood described as a workman, but it was well known in the area that he had come from the coal port of Amble, where his father had built cobles – small fishing boats. Nothing he did, nothing he had achieved, no matter how much money he made or business ability he had, could make him acceptable to the upper circles of society beyond Newcastle. Abby thought that privately it must have cost Charlotte many tears.

Edward was the saving grace. He had graduated from Oxford with full honours of every kind and gone into business with his father. He kept returning to Oxford, ostensibly to see his friends. Then Abby heard that there was a girl. She was, the rumour said in Newcastle, incredibly wealthy and outstandingly beautiful, with wit, intelligence and a generous father. William and Charlotte were delighted and a betrothal was arranged for the summer.

Abby was in correspondence with Rhoda Carlisle, who wrote that her new brother, the son of her mother’s new husband, was ill and they would not be able to come to the betrothal party, so Abby invited Rhoda to stay. The weather was warm; they could sit in the garden and visit the shops and she would be glad of the company. Rhoda arrived, thin but brown-faced from being out in the fresh air. She clearly enjoyed being with Abby, but when Abby tried to talk of her family, Rhoda changed. Her dark brown eyes clouded and her conversation ceased.

After a week of running along the nearest beach, plodging in the sea, eating lunch in the garden, reading books in the quietness
of the shady trees, Abby thought her friend looked a lot better. Then she began to talk of having a shop.

‘What kind of a shop?’ Abby said as they sat in the afternoon shade, drinking lemonade.

‘Oh, I don’t know. Clothes, perhaps, or hats.’

‘It isn’t respectable. You’re young and unmarried.’

‘Lots of women do.’

‘Not women like us.’

‘I’ll have to do something and soon.’

‘Why?’

Rhoda looked everywhere but at her friend.

‘Why, Rhoda?’ Abby insisted.

Rhoda looked fiercely at her.

‘You don’t know what it’s like with two brothers, the baby screaming and – and him! My mother … she can’t see anything wrong in him. I have no place there. I want to be away.’

‘I’ll introduce you to a nice young man at the party,’ Abby said, trying for lightness.

‘There are no nice men. They’re all horrible.’

‘You didn’t used to think that of your father.’

‘I was a child then,’ Rhoda said sadly, and Abby thought of her own childhood when nothing seemed to change. The days went on for ever and her parents were always there, her mother teaching her at home, joking and laughing with her, buying her pretty things, making the house light and warm as it had not been since. The best time of all was in the late autumn, when darkness fell across the streets and lights appeared beyond the bay windows. The leaves were off the trees so that the branches looked like long fingers in the gathering dusk; the wood fire gave off its bright flame; the kettle sang; the tea was made; one of her mother’s rich fruit cakes and the pretty pink and white china were laid out with a cloth. They would sit there together, sure in the knowledge that her father would be coming home to them. There would be dinner and closed curtains against the draughts, and the round globes of the lamps would take the mystery from
the corners of the rooms. They would read and talk and her father would relate his day. They would talk of people they knew and of Christmas to come and they would make plans. Later, Abby would curl up in her warm, soft feather bed. From there she would watch the fire die down and, as it did so, she would close her eyes in the knowledge that everything was right with her world and Christmas would mean all the special things that it had always brought. They had been so happy then. Why did it happen like that: to know that everything was all right and then to watch it taken from you? To know such happiness and to lose it was cruel. Her mother was dead and so was Rhoda’s father and there was no hope for the future. Childhood was long gone and all the lovely, endless days would never come again.

BOOK: Snow Angels
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