Read Wildflower Hill Online

Authors: Kimberley Freeman

Tags: #Fiction, #Contemporary Women, #Family Life, #Romance, #Historical, #20th Century, #General

Wildflower Hill (10 page)

BOOK: Wildflower Hill
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Beattie tucked the letter in the pocket of her apron, kept her head down, and returned to the house. Henry had been very clear that she wasn’t to make friends, she wasn’t to speak for too long to anyone, unless their secret was found out. Doris had been energetic in her attempts to build a relationship, but Beattie only ever offered her hurried apologies, a hand raised in a gesture that could have been a greeting or a warning to stay away. Nor was Beattie allowed to contact anyone from home—though she had sent two letters to Cora via Billy. Cora had not replied. Beattie missed home, she missed her friends, she missed her parents. She longed to be able to unburden her heart to someone, but Henry had forbidden it.

The door clunked shut behind her, and she moved through to the little kitchen to sit at the table and pull out the letter. She read the sender’s name again.
Molly MacConnell.
Henry’s wife. His
real
wife, not his make-believe wife, as Beattie had been for over three years. Her fingers were desperate to open it, but she dared not. Henry’s temper was unpredictable, grew more unpredictable as their financial difficulties deepened. And their financial difficulties deepened the more Henry drank to forget how deep they were, the more he gambled to try to dig them out of their hole.

Beattie carefully propped the letter on the mantel. She would have to wait for Henry to come home, read it, tell her what it meant. For surely they had been discovered now: if Molly had gone to the trouble of finding him, then maybe she wanted him back. Beattie experienced a tiny thrill of guilt; the idea of Henry being somebody else’s problem brought
momentary relief, a weight lifted off her chest. But she still loved Henry. And they were bound together now by a sticky web of complications.

Down the hallway, the sound of a door opening. Then a sleepy-faced child peered out.

“Mama?”

Beattie rose, collected Lucy in her arms, and kissed her warm cheek. “Did you have a nice sleep, darling?”

Lucy nodded, rubbing her eyes with her soft fists. “I want lunch.”

Beattie desposited Lucy at the kitchen table and set about making her a very thin sandwich with the food they had remaining. She cut it into four small pieces and put it in front of Lucy, who turned up her nose and said, “I don’t like it.”

“You haven’t tried it. It’s cheese and pickles.”

Lucy shook her head, but her cheeks dimpled.

“It’s Daddy’s favorite,” Beattie said, as she said every day at lunchtime.

Lucy theatrically rubbed her tummy and made a slurping sound, then started in on the sandwich. To say that the girl was attached strongly to her father was to understate the case by a thousand miles. Lucy and Henry were cut from the same cloth. They even shared the red hair and the gray eyes. Only when Lucy smiled could Beattie see any resemblance to herself. From the moment she’d been born, Henry had doted on her. She’d been a cranky child, impossible for Beattie to settle. And yet every evening when Henry returned from work, all he had to do was pick her up and talk to her softly and she would finally stop crying, nestle into his shoulder, and sleep.
Beattie had been far too shocked and exhausted by parenthood to be made jealous.

Now that Lucy was three, the daddy-daughter love was so deeply cemented that it sometimes felt as though Beattie were a long way outside them, her voice heard less clearly, her face seen less distinctly. She was the one who spent all day with Lucy, who made peg dolls with her and lay down to sing her to sleep for her nap. But that physical proximity could not compete with the emotional proximity Henry and Lucy shared. So on the days when life with Henry was hardest—when he came home too late and too drunk, when he bullied Beattie over the smile she exchanged with the baker, when he smashed the kitchen table with his fists in anger and her heart grew hot knowing it was her body he would rather hit—she could not allow herself to dream of taking Lucy and leaving him. The child would not be moved.

As Lucy ate, Beattie’s eyes were drawn again and again to the envelope. Perhaps it was good news. Perhaps Molly had met somebody new and finally wanted to divorce Henry. Perhaps she had spent months tracking him down to set him free. But Beattie couldn’t shake the feeling of dread.

Lucy pushed her empty plate away from her. “Can we play in the garden?”

“No, darling, we have to go to the shops. We have no food for Daddy’s dinner.” And no money to buy food, but she hoped the general store would allow her just one more tick on the books.

Lucy climbed down from the chair and ran to fetch her shoes. Beattie glanced one last time at the letter, then told
herself to put it out of her mind until Henry came home. Praying he would come home early for once.

Beattie walked down the hill toward the shops, Lucy running several feet ahead of her to pick up rocks or pet a stray cat. From up here, Beattie could see across the masts in the harbor all the way to the clock tower on the post office. Seeing the ships never failed to give her a sense of dread. She and Henry had spent two months aboard a stinking cargo liner to get here. The first ten days were a blur of roiling seasickness, and all those that followed were a claustrophobic nightmare inside their grimy cabin, waiting and waiting for the world to turn underneath her so she might finally come to rest. But reaching land brought her no joy. For this was not home but a strange wide-skied country where some people still used horses and carts. The homesickness was almost too much for her to bear, and some days she wondered if it was only the prospect of another long journey that stopped her from turning around and going back. She swore she’d never set foot on a boat again.

Henry had started work quickly, and their days fell into a routine. They were renting a little house from Billy Wilder on a street of brick cottages behind hawthorne hedges. Lucy had arrived in the very early hours one weekend, quickly and painfully. There hadn’t been time for the midwife to attend, and Henry had been the one to take the squirming baby from Beattie’s body and wrap it in a soft blanket until help came. With misty eyes, he’d told her they had a little girl, a
daughter, and they had sat close by each other in sacred awe, holding the child—little Lucy with her fierce eyes and tuft of red hair—until dawn. Such happiness had beaten in her heart. But that happiness had been fleeting.

The general store was run by two elderly women whom Beattie had always found difficult to tell apart. Jean and Lesley. Not sweet old ladies, either. Rather the stern, self-righteous variety. They were close but not sisters, and Beattie suspected that they might be much more than friends. Henry, when she’d suggested this, lost his temper at her for thinking scandalous thoughts. It had made her sad: did she have to second-guess before sharing her thoughts with him? How could they be close if he judged her so fiercely?

But then had they ever been close? Fervent dalliances at the club aside, the first time they’d spent concentrated time together was on the ship to Hobart. And they’d found they had little to say to each other.

Jean and Lesley were running a thriving business but always complaining about money. For this reason, they left the lights in the shop off during the day, so that the windowless back corner was always in semi-darkness. This was the corner they had chosen to put the toys, high up on oak shelves, tantalizingly out of reach. It was Lucy’s favorite corner. She stared up longingly at the Madame Alexander dolls. The fat baby in the red pajamas was her favorite, and Beattie was certain that only fear of the sharp voices of Jean and Lesley stopped her from climbing the shelves to get it. Beattie left her to gaze and took the basket around the shop, collecting only the essentials but still alarmed at how quickly the basket was filling up.

Then, fearfully, she approached the glass counter, which was lined with jars of sweets and rotating racks of postcards.

Jean—or was it Lesley . . . no, Jean was the one with the steel-gray hair—smiled at her tightly. “Good morning, Mrs. MacConnell.”

“Good morning. I . . . wonder if my husband could come down and pay for these later?”

Jean’s smile didn’t falter, though her eyes grew cold. “I believe we are still waiting for your husband to pay for groceries from last Thursday.”

“Yes, I know. He will come down and pay for them all this week.” Friday, payday. Not that there was ever much left. Eight months after Lucy’s birth, Billy Wilder had formed his own company and employed Henry. Within weeks, he’d told Henry he couldn’t afford to keep him on—so many men were losing their jobs—unless he took a much lower salary. And from that salary every week, before a penny had made its way into Henry’s pocket, Billy deducted rent and gambling debts. What they had left over was sometimes less than the dreaded welfare: she’d be better off with a food relief card. “We have to eat,” she said softly.

Jean sighed. “Some folk are so ill-starred that they make soup from grass, Mrs. MacConnell. But as your husband actually has a job, I’ll give you another chance.” She turned and opened one of the drawers behind her to pull out a well-thumbed notebook. She slapped it on the counter and opened it. “I’ll extend your credit until the end of the month. On March thirty-first, if your debt isn’t cleared, you won’t be able to shop here again. Do you understand?”

Beattie merely nodded. As Jean rang up her bill, then pinned the receipt in the notebook, she carefully hid her squirming, hot-faced shame. Today it was a little easier to bear, because there was something even more worrisome on her mind. A letter waiting at home for Henry, and she didn’t know what it signified.

Beattie hoped Henry would come home early and put her out of her misery. She went about tidying the house and preparing dinner. She thought about steaming the letter open but stopped herself. It wasn’t worth Henry losing his temper. Finally, she bundled Lucy up and took her out into the garden. As the long shadows crept across the patchy grass, Lucy ran about with her arms outstretched, demanded endless games of ring-a-rosy, buried her peg-doll family alive, then dug them up again. Henry’s usual arrival time came and went, and as the sun set and Lucy started moaning about being hungry, Beattie realized he had decided to stay out, probably to drink with Billy.

She took Lucy inside and fixed her dinner—bread and dripping and some leftover pea soup—but had no appetite herself. The evening was taken up with chores: bathing Lucy, cleaning up, making up bedtime stories. Lucy cried a little that her daddy wasn’t home, but Beattie reassured her that the sooner she went to sleep, the sooner it would be morning and she would see him then.

Beattie sat up with her sewing kit and worked. She made all of her own and Lucy’s clothes, often looking out for castoffs
that could be unpicked and resewn. Her childish dreams of being a designer now seemed laughable, but she did still love drawing ideas for dresses, and many of the local women had commented on Lucy’s beautiful clothes. Beattie always kept her head down, nodding politely, though not engaging in conversation. But she had suggested to Henry that she could start a little business making children’s clothes to sell.

Henry had scoffed at the idea. “Nobody has any money, and children grow so quickly, they’d be fools to spend it on new clothes. Just keep to yourself.”

As Beattie sewed, she was aware of the night deepening. She had no appetite, but she ate a little bit of dinner and left the rest for Henry when he came home. Her eyes returned again and again to the letter, and as the wind off the water intensified and it grew cold enough to light the fire, her dread grew exponentially. Molly. The Irish wolfhound. A woman she had never met and yet was inextricably connected to. Beattie had stolen Molly’s husband. There, she’d allowed herself to think it. And what happened to women who stole husbands? Beattie suspected she was already finding out.

It was ten o’clock before Beattie gave up. Even if Henry came home now, he wouldn’t be sober enough to talk to. She changed into her nightdress and climbed into bed. Gusts of wind periodically shook the windows, and she slept fitfully, half-dreams and anxious imaginings punctuating her rest.

In the very early hours of the morning, when the world seemed farthest from the sun, she heard voices.

She sat up, sleep falling away from her in an instant. It was Henry. Had he seen the letter yet? She rose and cracked open
the door. Across the hall in the sitting room, the lamps were blazing, the fire roaring. They were talking some nonsense about a rich client, making lewd jokes and laughing uproariously. She heard the clink of glasses. They were drinking. She hoped that Billy had bought the alcohol, because Henry had no money for it.

Beattie returned to bed, leaving the door ajar so she could listen. Their conversation drifted in and out of her hearing. Then there was a burst of loud laughter and, briefly afterward, the sound of Lucy’s bedroom door opening. They had woken her up.

As Beattie pulled on her dressing gown, she heard Lucy’s sleepy voice in the hallway. “Daddy?”

“My wee lass!” Henry effused drunkenly. “Come here, dearie. Come and say hello to Uncle Billy.”

Beattie’s skin crawled at the idea of “Uncle Billy” anywhere near her daughter and hurried out to intercept Lucy in the doorway to the sitting room. “Come on, love. Back to bed.”

Henry glared at her. “I haven’t seen her all day. Give me a chance to say hello, woman.”

Beattie bit her tongue so she didn’t tell him it was his fault he hadn’t seen her all day because he’d been out drinking. Probably gambling.

Lucy threw herself in Henry’s arms, and he gathered her up and cuddled her savagely.

“Och, she’s the image of you, Henry,” Billy said.

“Until she smiles. Then she’s all Beattie.”

Billy glanced at Beattie, his eyes drawn to her nightdress.
She drew together her robe tightly at her neck. He smiled cruelly—in truth, she’d seen no other kind of smile from him—and held out an empty whiskey glass. “Drink?”

“It’s one in the morning.”

“It will help you sleep.”

Beattie didn’t answer. Her gaze skimmed the mantel. The letter was still unopened.

Henry put Lucy down and said, “Will you sing a wee song for Uncle Billy? The one about the birdies that you made up?” He turned to Billy. “She’s a clever lass, Billy, you wouldn’t credit it.”

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