Read Wildflower Hill Online

Authors: Kimberley Freeman

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

Wildflower Hill (11 page)

BOOK: Wildflower Hill
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Beattie intervened. “She really should be sleeping, Henry.”

“I want to stay up with Daddy.”

Henry conceded. “Your mother’s right. I’m just so happy to see you, my chick.” He stroked her hair gently. “Go on, off to bed with you. You can sing for me in the morning.”

Beattie took Lucy back to bed and tucked her in. By this stage, the child was wide-eyed and restless, and Beattie doubted she would sleep.

“Just close your eyes,” Beattie said. “Off to dreamland. I’ll meet you there under the big chestnut tree. We’ll have a picnic.”

Lucy smiled. “Can we have cake?”

“Yes, cake with jam in the middle.”

The little girl mimed eating a giant slice, then turned over and screwed her eyes shut. Beattie left her, closing the door quietly, then paused in the threshold of the sitting room. Henry was more subdued now, but Billy was screeching with
laughter over some wild joke. She waited for him to quiet, then smiled politely. “Have you news of your brother, Billy? Did Cora have the baby yet?”

“Yes, yes, Teddy’s a proud father. A wee boy they named Frank. They’ve moved to Edinburgh, bought a house with a garden. Domestic bliss.”

Beattie found it hard to fight her jealousy. “Give them my best, won’t you?” She turned her eyes to Henry. “And Henry, there’s a letter up there for you.” She nodded toward the mantel. “Might be important. I’m off to bed.”

She turned, heart thudding, and returned to her room. Closed the door all but a crack and peered out. A long quiet. He was reading it.

“What’s wrong, MacConnell? Bad news?”

“It’s nothing,” Henry said quickly. She saw him cross the room to the fire. He was going to burn the letter. “Just some nonsense. Another drink?”

Beattie got into bed and closed her eyes. He burned it. That meant he didn’t want it. That meant everything was all right. Didn’t it? Sleep eluded her. Within half an hour, Billy had clattered out the front door and Henry was sliding into bed next to her, quiet, trying not to wake her.

She turned to him. “Henry, the letter—”

“Don’t ask.”

“But what did she want? What—”

“I said don’t ask!”
he shouted, and it was so loud in the dark quiet that her whole body twitched in shock.

She opened her mouth to speak, to ask for reassurance, but
didn’t want him to shout again. He’d burned it. He wanted to forget it. That would have to be enough.

Sometimes, Henry thought, it was better to take care of things himself. It didn’t matter how many times he’d told Beattie that she must go down to the general store and negotiate with them; she insisted she couldn’t, that the two hard-faced women who ran the store would not extend their credit another penny. Henry didn’t believe that for a second. Beattie was a mite lazy and a mite too worried about what other people thought. So he’d put on his hat and marched down there, Lucy clinging firmly to his hand, to make Jean and Lesley see sense. He couldn’t pay, not just yet, though he anticipated a windfall soon. His luck was bound to change at the card table. Frankly, it couldn’t get any worse.

“Daddy, you’re walking too fast.”

Henry slowed, giving her soft hand a squeeze. “Sorry, my dearie.”

“Mummy lets me collect rocks.”

“We haven’t time today.” But the sting of being unfairly compared to Beattie undermined him. “Och, I’m being a grouch. Go on, Lucy. Find your pretty rocks.”

Her warm fingers left his, and she dashed off to the edge of the road. He watched her with a grin, aware as he always was that the child made him into an idiot. Every time he looked at her, even thought about her, his heart turned to warm water. The night she was born—a collection of hellish images
of blood and bodily contortion that he could not forget when he looked at Beattie—it was as though Lucy had emerged directly into his hands, as though she were telling him, “I’m yours, never let me go.”

They arrived at the bottom of the hill. The store was late-afternoon quiet. The larger woman, Lesley, was bringing in the news banners while Jean counted out the cash register inside. Lucy ran off to the back corner to look at the dolls, and Henry approached the counter.

Jean looked up, unsmiling. “Mr. MacConnell? I do hope you’ve come to pay your bill.”

Henry wasn’t one for smiling or charming people. He spoke plainly and with dignity. “I am unable to pay at this point. I want to extend our credit until April thirty, when I expect to pay it in full.” There. Not so hard to say, so why did Beattie balk at it?

“No.”

Henry winced. “I’m sorry?”

“No. I’m not in the business of extending credit to bad debtors. Many people are in financial difficulties, Mr. MacConnell.
Genuinely.
But yours is the only family who asks for more than we can give you.”

The rage began to build within him. What did she mean “genuinely”? Had Beattie told them about his gambling debts? Could she not keep her mouth shut? The silly, young fool! His hands balled into fists, and he wanted to smash the cabinet they rested on, to hear the satisfying shatter of its glass.

“I can see you don’t like what I’m saying to you,” Jean said,
“but nothing you can do can change my opinion. Unless you give me some of the money I am owed.”

Henry gathered himself. He nodded once, then wordlessly turned on his heel. He marched up to the back corner where Lucy was gazing with huge, round eyes at a collection of little dolls up out of her reach.

“Daddy,” she said, “the baby.”

He looked and saw a tiny baby doll, smaller than his hand, dressed in red. Lucy looked at him with pleading eyes. He cursed himself. If he hadn’t lost so much to Billy—damn Billy, damn him for everything!—he’d be able to buy this little toy for his child. But instead . . .

Henry checked behind him. Jean was counting her money, Lesley was still outside, the back corner was dark.

In one swift moment, the doll was in his pocket. He herded Lucy out quickly, shushing her excited laughter. He swept her up in his arms and hurried down the hill to the empty marketplace, where they sat together and she made a game out of checking every one of his pockets until she found the doll.

Then she threw her little arms around his neck and shrieked with happiness.

As Lucy played with her dolly, as the plane tree leaves scattered about them, as the boats slowly bobbed on their moorings in the harbor, Henry’s anger subsided until he felt quite normal again. And a little embarrassed. Stealing toys for his daughter. Is that what he had been reduced to? Once he had known what to do with himself, with life. But then Beattie had come along, with her wide blue eyes and her soft white
skin . . . For a long time, she had seemed to be his greatest love. Now, though, she was his greatest regret.

Especially now that Molly had found him. Especially now that Molly had written to tell him her father in Ireland had finally died and left her a small fortune. She still wanted him back, despite everything. That was the kind of person Molly was. She was good: a heart handmade by angels.

He shook himself. That was not his life anymore. This was. He watched Lucy a little longer, smiling again. The child brought him such happiness, and every choice he’d made that had brought him here—to this moment of togetherness—was worth it. He would endure without Molly’s money, without Beattie’s adoration. For the love of his daughter, he could endure anything.

NINE
 

E
ven though Henry had expressly forbidden it, Beattie found herself knocking quietly on her neighbor’s front door. To say she was desperate was true on so many levels, but she was most desperate for money. Her one pair of shoes, brought with her from Glasgow, the ones she had used to run away from Morcombe House, were finally beyond repair.

Not that she was going to ask Doris for money. The thought mortified her. But she knew the elderly woman lived alone, and perhaps she had odd jobs that Beattie could help her with and be paid for when Henry was out and wouldn’t know.

Beattie crouched down and straightened the hem of Lucy’s dress. It would have to come down again. The child was growing so fast.

“What are we doing here, Mummy?”

“I have to speak very quickly to the lady who lives here. Her name is Doris.” She stopped short of saying “Daddy mustn’t know” because that was a sure way to get Lucy to say
something. No secrets could be kept from Daddy. She would rely instead on the fact that Lucy was young and easily distractible. An afternoon playing with the peg dolls in the boat made out of a soapbox would make her forget.

The door opened, and Doris was standing there, looking down at her curiously. “Mrs. MacConnell?”

“Beattie,” Beattie said, standing and extending her hand.

Doris took it briefly, smiling. “How nice of you to drop by. Can I make you tea?”

“I . . .” Beattie hesitated. Then decided she could not form half a friendship with this woman. “Of course. Thank you, I would like that very much.”

She ushered Lucy in ahead of her and sat her down in the sitting room with the little baby doll that Henry had bought her—Beattie had held her tongue: there were so many things they needed more than dolls—where she played happily while Doris made tea and Beattie eyed the room. It was immaculate. Clearly, this woman needed no help with household chores. Every gleaming surface was adorned with little glass statues, china candleholders, silver boxes. Over the mantel hung a heavy, decorated crucifix. A watercolor painting of Jesus—blue-eyed and fair-haired—sat on the mantel just like a photo of a favorite relative.

“I must say,” Doris said, pouring the tea, “I never thought I’d find you in my sitting room.”

“I’m very sorry,” Beattie said. “My husband and I have rather kept to ourselves.” Not entirely true. Henry was well known in the bars. His indiscretion was no doubt how Molly had tracked him down.

“You don’t need to explain anything to me,” Doris said, sitting next to Beattie on the high-backed sofa. “I’m just glad you came. I’ve been very lonely since my husband died.” She blinked rapidly, then forced a smile. “I do hope you’ll come again.”

“Well, that is one of the reasons I wanted to speak to you. I’m rather hoping to find some work: cleaning, perhaps? Or cooking? I’m very good at sewing, if you need anything repaired.”

Doris shook her head. “Oh, no. I like to do all those things myself. It keeps me fit. And I don’t really have the money to hire anybody. Since Tom died, I do have to be careful with what I’ve got.”

Lucy was circling the room slowly, admiring the knickknacks gleaming on every surface. Beattie tried to hide her disappointment.

“It’s a shame you don’t live a little farther north. My cousin Margaret in Lewinford is a seamstress, and she always has more work than she can manage. She often employs young women like yourself.”

“Lewinford? How far away is it?”

“Fifty miles, dear. Too far to travel. Especially with a young one.” Doris’s eyes settled on Lucy, and she smiled. “She’s a pretty thing, isn’t she? That lovely red hair.”

“She looks like her father. He was always a handsome fellow.” As Beattie said this, she wondered where her desire for Henry had gone. Those days, when one look from his pale eyes could set her heart thundering, were so far behind her.

Beattie drank her tea as quickly as she could, keen to get
home now that Doris couldn’t help her. If Henry found out, there would be trouble. But Doris had settled into a long tale of her husband, how they’d met, the thirty-five good years they’d spent together, their six children who were living in various places all over Australia. Finally, she’d stopped to offer to make another pot of tea.

“No, I mustn’t,” Beattie said. “I’ve rather a lot to do at home.”

“You must come by again tomorrow. Or the next day. It has been so lovely to have company.”

Beattie squirmed. “Thank you for inviting me. I’m sure I’ll come again soon.”

Doris saw them to the door, crouching in front of Lucy to say goodbye. Beattie watched curiously as Doris put her arms around Lucy’s body, then rummaged in her smock. Just as Beattie was about to protest, Doris produced a small glass statue of a mouse. “I don’t think this is yours, little one,” she said kindly, and stood.

Beattie’s face burned with shame. “Lucy! You stole that! How could you?”

Lucy looked confused. “I liked it.”

“I’m so sorry, I—”

“Think nothing of it. I saw her hide it under her dress and thought I’d give her a chance to put it back.” Doris turned kind eyes on Lucy. “You mustn’t take other people’s things. Jesus is watching you always.”

“Who’s Jesus?”

Beattie turned Lucy around. “We must go . . .”

“If you ever need somebody to mind the child, just drop her by. I’d be delighted to have her.”

Beattie marched Lucy home, wishing she’d done exactly as Henry said and not tried to make contact with the outside world.

They made it through winter by burning rubbish in their fireplace, by brewing their tea increasingly weak, by begging Billy to give them a month off paying rent even though it left them further in debt. Billy was always cheerfully willing to extend their credit, and Beattie didn’t know if it was because he could not imagine how desperate their situation was or if he was pleased to get the extra interest on the loans. For all other purposes, he was Henry’s best friend. Some weeks, the only food she could afford was porridge oats, bread, milk, and honey. She noticed her dresses growing looser around the waist, though she made sure Lucy always had plenty to eat. Because Henry was employed, they could not qualify for government assistance. But his money was gone before he got it, and he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, see the approaching disaster.

Others had it so much worse: she had come home with Lucy from a walk one day to see the family across the road—a thin, gray-faced woman, a pair of crying babies, and a man with a stricken face—sitting on their dirty mattress on the side of the road. Evicted. The man had looked at her and called it out in a cracked voice, “Please? Have you anything to give us? My children haven’t eaten today, and we’ve nowhere
to sleep.” Beattie had kept her head down. If she’d had anything to give them, she would have. But by then she hadn’t held a coin in her hand for four days.

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