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Authors: Elizabeth Gill

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BOOK: Snow Angels
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‘I’d rather chop my feet off,’ she said. ‘Why don’t you go and ask your sister-in-law? You seem to like her well enough.’

‘I suppose you’re going to marry Robert Surtees.’

Gil couldn’t believe he had said this, but they were far enough away from the music and other people so he didn’t need to be discreet. She turned cold blue eyes on him.

‘He hasn’t asked, so it would be indelicate of me to say much other than that he’s a gentleman and you’re a stupid boy!’ She turned with a swish of her skirts. Gil was angry. He went after her even when she ventured outside. Snow was starting to fall in big, dangerous flakes.

‘That’s not fair!’ he said and, when she wouldn’t stop, he got hold of her bare arm and pulled her around. ‘I came to you.’

‘To me? Oh yes, I remember. Sunday afternoon in the dene. You bothered to come into Newcastle to see me and then you ignored everything I said.’

‘You say too much.’

‘You love Helen.’

For months now, ever since the moment he had seen her, Gil had denied to himself that his regard for his sister-in-law was love. He had called it misguided, immature, inexperience, all number of things, but he had not called it love and he did not expect to hear it on anybody’s lips, least of all from Abby. He tried to think. He tried to be truthful and the images of the warm country and the white room flooded into his head.

‘It’s – it’s in the past,’ he said.

‘What past?’ Abby laughed and her eyes glinted with fury. ‘You haven’t got a past, not that kind. I’m not blind. I saw you when you met her. I saw how you looked at her.’

‘I recognised her.’

‘From where?’

‘I don’t know.’ Desperation got Gil further. ‘Please, Abby, I do care about you. I have always—’

‘No, you haven’t. You’ve always ignored me.’

‘I didn’t know what to say, what to do. Give me a chance, please.’

‘This is just because you can’t have her. Do you think that’s what I want? Some other woman’s leavings? She could have had you if she had wanted, couldn’t she? She didn’t have to marry your brother.’

‘She loves him.’

‘Does she? Well, good luck to her. I’m glad it’s not me, marrying a Collingwood.’

*

Abby remembered later the things that she had said to him and she thought that her mother would have been ashamed of her, but at the time it felt as though Gil deserved everything she threw at him. And she did throw it. Words were such horrible weapons and he was defenceless; he had always been defenceless in that way. She thought he was a product of a cruel upbringing. He had never learned to talk his way out of anything because he had always been physically hurt. He waited for the blows in that kind of situation, he expected them, and whereas if she had been a man he might have defended himself with his fists, he couldn’t do it so he had nowhere to go.

‘You’re common. You’re not a gentleman.’ Robert and his friends and their company were to blame for this, Abby thought. It was true that Gil’s grandfather had been a poor man, that his father had built a monstrosity of a house, that they cared for material things such as people of quality did not, but it wasn’t something he could help. She threw insults at him and Gil begged and pleaded with her not to marry Robert. How scornful she was, how unforgiving. The worst part of all was that she loved him. She liked Robert well enough, she saw it all clearly, and she knew that marriage to him would be comfortable and
easy because of his money and independence; but the young man in front of her was the person she always looked for when she walked into a room. All those evenings when they hadn’t talked and hadn’t danced didn’t matter as long as he was there. When he wasn’t there, every party was boring. He had nothing to recommend him: no breeding, no talents; he didn’t even love her. She was to be his escape from a love which he could not have and she thought that she could not bear that he should want Helen more than he wanted her. Yet without him there seemed little point to anything. Her pride brought despair to his face.

‘If you ever cared for me at all, don’t leave me like this, please.’

Abby thought she would go to her grave hearing him say that and she told him airily, while the snow provided a white carpet, that she would marry Robert and he could go to hell. Which was, she thought later, exactly what he did.

*

People began to leave as the snow fell heavily, but all the Collingwoods had to do was walk up the hill towards the Harrison house, where they would spend the night. Helen and Edward were not having a holiday. He planned to take her to Paris in the spring.

‘Besides, Toby and I are going to the Solway to shoot geese at the end of the month,’ Edward had said.

*

Gil’s room had a big fire and huge floor-to-ceiling bay windows which looked out over the darkness of the river where the castle and cathedral were outlined as gigantic shadows against the white sky. They frightened him, those buildings. Anything frightened him which could exist for hundreds of years when most men were dead at sixty. How many suffering souls had looked on those same walls and made no impression? For how many more generations would they stand while people died in a
thousand different ways? Gil hated buildings that lasted. They should fall as men fell, it was only decent.

Helen and Edward had gone to bed. In a room across the hall, his brother was enjoying his first taste of a woman who did not belong to him. It was as though Helen committed adultery, except that no one else but him would know the wrong of it. He tortured himself thinking of her in his brother’s arms while his memory, or his imagination, or some part of his mind, gave him her laughter and the happiness of them both and the child inside her, his child, the only one she had. He could feel her, taste her, yet his arms were empty and the longing hurt so much that he would have cried to ease it except that he couldn’t.

The snow laid a heavy look on the night. The fire died slowly in the grate. He didn’t go to bed. He stayed by the window, saw the night through and told himself that it would never be as bad as that again. His brother would have deflowered his bride by now and you couldn’t do that twice.

Chapter Six

Abby had not been kissed before and didn’t know what to expect, only that the timing was wrong. She was still upset about Gil. It was sweet enough, standing in a shop doorway with Robert, quite alone with him, and having him put his mouth on hers, but she kept thinking back to Gil and wishing she had said different things.

She and Robert had lingered on the walk to where they were staying with friends, dropped back from the others.

‘I want to make you mine,’ he said. ‘Will you marry me, Abby?’

Her first instinct was panic and refusal, but she had known for some time that he had been leading up to a proposal; he would not have spent so much time with her or asked her to go with him to London.

‘May I talk to your father about it?’ he said.

Henderson, she knew, would be delighted. He had not thought about such things as an advantageous marriage but since it had happened, apparently of its own making, he could enjoy it. He didn’t like Gil, Abby thought, but Robert was the son-in-law every man dreamed of. She thought that even her mother would have been pleased. The only criticism Henderson might have made, and he had not voiced it, would be that Robert knew nothing of industry and would be unlikely to want to take
on the shipyard as Henderson got older. In a way, Abby could make this up by Robert’s prosperity and position in society and also she could ease some of the hardships of her father’s life both past and present. With her married and settled, his responsibility would cease and maybe then, she thought, he would consider his own life, feel less guilty about going out except to work, find a social life, even perhaps a wife. More than anything, Abby wished to free her father so that he could have some future. All the important things in his life seemed to be in the past.

*

The following day, which was Sunday, the Collingwood family travelled back to Newcastle in the evening. Edward had nothing to say. Both he and Helen were pale and Helen fell asleep in the carriage against Gil’s shoulder. She was still asleep when they got home. Edward yawned as he got out of the carriage and, glancing back, said to Gil, ‘Carry her, will you? I’m so damned tired and she’ll fall over the step and break her neck if she has to walk.’

Gil carried her up the steps and over the threshold into the house. Almost awake by then, she thanked him in a small voice and went away to her room. His parents went to bed but Gil wasn’t tired; he felt as if he would never want to sleep again. It was almost midnight when Edward, to Gil’s surprise, came into the small sitting-room just as he had on so many nights before his marriage and poured brandy for them both. He sat down in the chair across the fire.

‘You can come to the Solway with us,’ he said.

‘What?’

‘Goose-shooting. Toby’s going and Ralph Charlton. Come with us. It’ll be fun. You don’t get much fun.’

‘I can’t if you’re not at the shipyard.’

‘Father won’t miss me. I do so little when I am there.’

‘You have no feeling for it.’

Edward finished his brandy and went across and poured another. Gil hadn’t touched his drink.

‘Oh, I have plenty of feeling for it. I hate it almost as much as I hate him. The two are bound together so closely, how could I feel otherwise?’

‘Is there something else you want to do?’

‘Yes, I want to go to the Solway and shoot geese.’

‘No, I meant—’

‘I know what you meant,’ Edward said and he sighed. ‘When I was a child and did something wrong, he used to thrash me and I could smell the shipyard on him, that particular dirty smell, sweat and work and mud and water and grease.’

‘The smell of the Tyne.’

‘Docks and those disgusting hovels he keeps people in. Do you imagine he ever thinks about them?’

‘No.’

‘Do you think about them?’

‘Sometimes.’

Edward downed his brandy.

‘I knew you did. You’re a good man, Gil.’ And he yawned and wished his brother goodnight.

*

Gil managed to avoid the row, though even from his office he could hear his father’s voice and then Edward’s and at one point they were both equally as loud. Helen’s fortune had been put to the company’s use and it had been a huge sum of money. Money altered the balance of power, Gil thought. Edward had been given a big office next to his father’s. He cared nothing for it and Gil had lingered there, admiring the view and wishing it was his. From it you could see, or imagine you could see, the extent of his father’s domain.

There was a steelworks, an engineering works, a huge shipyard. There were blast furnaces, foundries, machine shops and chemical laboratories. The noise was tremendous from thousands of men performing skilled jobs. Enormous chimneys poured out smoke; ships were on the water; ships were being
built; men scurried everywhere and Gil knew that beyond it all, his father had had the great gates repainted at the entrance to the shipyard. They proclaimed: ‘Wm. Collingwood & Sons’.

They had begun with iron, now it was steel ships, warships, battleships for various navies from China to Spain, and oil tankers. On the wall of his father’s office was a portrait of a man called John Rogerson, the owner of the
Mary Rogerson,
the first ship, they believed, to take crude petroleum in barrels from America to London. Anything could be done; anything could be achieved.

The noise suddenly increased as the door was flung open and his father strode down the corridor and came into Gil’s tiny office.

‘I suppose you’re going as well, are you?’

‘Don’t start on him!’ Edward said, following him in.

Gil didn’t think he had ever seen his brother so angry.

‘Well, are you?’ His father, Gil reflected, didn’t frighten him any more. He hadn’t realised.

‘No, I’m not.’

‘He doesn’t want to shoot the ickle-wickle geese,’ Edward teased him.

William threw Edward a black look.

‘You’re idle, idle and good for nothing!’ He slammed the door on his way out. Edward pulled a face.

‘Freedom!’ he said. ‘Nothing but me and the geese.’

*

Gil had imagined that the weather would be so bad that they wouldn’t go anywhere, but Helen wanted to shop and for some reason she asked him to go with her, so he went. It was a perfect day. She wanted to try on various dresses. Gil felt that his mother would have been more use, but he quite enjoyed it, sitting on a chair while she came out wearing each one, asking him what he thought. The truth was that she looked lovely in them all, though he managed to persuade her not to buy a bright pink
creation with feathers. It was easy. All he had to say was, ‘I don’t think Edward would care for that’ and her face would fall.

They went out for tea. They spent an hour in an art gallery looking at various portraits of Grace Darling who had, with her father, gone out in a coble to rescue people from the ship foundering on the rocks. Gil could remember his grandfather telling him about it. There were other paintings of Tynemouth and local people and places. It was a cold, dry day and lots of people were about. Musicians played on the street corners and families gathered in cafés to drink tea. Helen ate cake, drank her tea and went home laden with parcels. In the evening she wore one of her new dresses and they stayed up until late. Gil was happier with her than he could be with anyone else.

She was so excited on the day that Edward came home. She couldn’t rest and kept going to the window to look for the carriage. He was late and it was dark and cold, but she ran down the steps in greeting, her eyes bright with tears. She didn’t leave Edward’s side that evening until he asked her to play the piano and then she kept looking across at him and smiling.

‘How many new dresses did you let her buy?’ he asked.

She went to bed, but Edward lingered for a while and Gil stayed downstairs after that, enjoying the night and the fire. Then a white figure appeared soundlessly from behind him.

‘My God!’ he said. ‘I thought you were a ghost.’

‘Is Edward not here?’

BOOK: Snow Angels
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