Read Wildflower Hill Online

Authors: Kimberley Freeman

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

Wildflower Hill (12 page)

BOOK: Wildflower Hill
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“We have nothing,” he called after her. “Less than nothing.”

Beattie ushered Lucy inside and shut the door, her heart thudding.

“What were those people doing there?” Lucy asked. “What will they do if it rains?

But Beattie wouldn’t answer, distracted her with a game, and tried to forget what she had seen and heard. By the next morning, they were gone.

The winter cold mercifully lifted, and Beattie resisted as long as she could telling Henry that he simply must stop drinking and gambling, because his patience grew thinner and thinner with her until he would snarl at her for the least reason. But as Lucy’s fourth birthday approached and Beattie feared there would be no money for a present, or even for sugar and eggs for a cake, she couldn’t hold her tongue any longer.

It was a rainy night, and the sound of it sheeting off the roof made her anxious. The ceiling in Lucy’s room leaked, and the steady drip-drip into the bucket sometimes kept her awake for hours. Beattie wanted to be sure Lucy was asleep before she spoke to Henry. She feared an argument. Beattie worked distractedly on a skirt she was rehemming for Lucy, while Henry read. Ordinarily, they would sit there for hours without speaking, conversation long since lost between them.

Beattie rose and peeked into Lucy’s room. The child’s breathing was deep and even. She closed the door and returned to the sitting room, stood in front of Henry.

At length, he looked up. “What is it?”

“You love your daughter?” She hadn’t meant for it to sound so much like a challenge, but huge, buried feelings of resentment were firing into life.

“Of course.”

“Is she not worth new shoes? Is she not worth a full tummy? Meat more than once a fortnight?”

Henry’s eyes narrowed, his pupils shrinking to pinpoints. He pulled himself to his feet, and her heart turned to water. “What are you suggesting?” he said.

“You are lucky. You earn a living. And yet you throw it all away on gin and card games. We are
poor,
Henry.”

“Everyone is poor.” He sniffed, looking away.

Beattie took a deep breath. “If you loved your daughter, you would stop drinking and gambling.”

His reaction was alarmingly swift and stinging: a flat palm across her face.

“Know your place, woman,” he hissed. Then he turned and stalked off while helpless tears gathered in her eyes. She couldn’t find her voice to call him back. He had frightened it away.

When the second letter arrived, she wasn’t in a mood to ignore it.

This time she recognized the handwriting without having to read Molly’s name on the back. Her chest grew hot.

Beattie set Lucy up at the kitchen table with an old wooden jigsaw puzzle and put the kettle on the stove. She hesitated
before paying a penny for the gas to boil it, then decided that it was worth it. Once the kettle was boiling, she checked that Lucy wasn’t watching and held the envelope carefully in the cloud of steam, her fingernail gently working its way under the back flap, all the while feeling her pulse flutter in her throat. If Henry found out . . .

The flap gave, and Beattie quickly switched off the gas. With shaking fingers, she unfolded the letter and read it.

Dear Henry, I cannot tell you how pleased I was to receive your letter . . .

Caught between disbelief and fury, Beattie put the letter down for a moment. He had written to Molly? He had forbidden Beattie from contacting even her own parents but had thought it acceptable to write to his wife? Her breathing had become shallow, her lungs seemed to shake.

“What’s wrong, Mummy?” Lucy was looking at her, watching with those steady gray eyes.

Beattie forced a quick smile. “Nothing, darling. Have you finished the puzzle?”

“The kitten’s head is missing.”

“Oh, dear.” Beattie forced herself to stop shaking, took Lucy’s hand, and pulled her gently out of the chair. “Why don’t you go into my room and find one of my dresses to play in?”

“Yes! Can I wear your bead necklace?”

“Just this once.”

Lucy skipped off, and Beattie returned her attention to the letter, swallowing hard before unfolding it once more.

I have never stopped wondering about you, if you are well and happy. You are still my husband and always will be, no matter what foolish decisions you have made. I must admit that it has given me terrible pain to hear that you have a child, as you know it was one of my fiercest desires to bear children. But I was not blessed. If you could send a photograph of the child, it would give me great joy and relief.

The tigress inside Beattie snarled. This woman wanted a photograph of Lucy? What on earth for? She hadn’t a claim on the child and never would have. Beattie would kill somebody first.

Then wonder began to dawn on her. What was wrong with Molly? How could she be so nice? Henry had abandoned her, set up a life on the other side of the world, taken another woman as his wife. Where was the rage? Where was the venomous hatred? Was it hidden or really not there?

The next two paragraphs were about Glasgow, the weather, the traffic, her elderly aunt. Then the final paragraph cut Beattie to her heart.

I deduce from the tone of your letter that you aren’t opposed to the idea of me having a role in your life again. Perhaps I am foolish (not a young, pretty fool like Beattie, I’m afraid, as my thirty-third birthday approaches), but when I agreed to marry you, I saw it as a lifetime commitment. Nothing has changed. If
you want me to send you money for a passage back to Glasgow, I gladly will.

Your wife, Molly.

 

How dare she? How dare she tempt Henry away with . . .

She realized Molly was only doing what Beattie had already done. Beattie had tempted Henry away. She’d known he was married; she’d listened to all his stories about Molly and how dull she was, how she never wanted to make love, how unfashionably she dressed. And she’d not given Molly a moment’s consideration.

She wanted to tear the letter to shreds. Instead, she carefully slid it back into the envelope, pressed the flap down until it held, and put the letter on the mantelpiece. Would Henry leave her? Surely not. He wouldn’t leave Lucy. She comforted herself with that thought for a while, joining Lucy in the bedroom for a raucous game of dress-up. Lucy, swimming in one of Beattie’s dresses, had pulled on a hat and turned into a demanding customer. Beattie was cast as Jean, the general store was open for business. They played and laughed, then Beattie caught a glimpse of Lucy in the mirror. Her shining red hair, so like Henry’s, turned her mind to the bond between father and daughter. Realization hit her, and her blood ran cold.

Henry might think he could take Lucy with him.

At once, every nerve in her body began to sing in panic. If Henry got it in his head to bundle her daughter off to Glasgow with him, what could she do?

She hurried out of the room, leaving Lucy protesting loudly. She seized the letter from the mantelpiece and set it
alight in the fireplace. Watched it curl and blacken. Molly’s words, her invitation, were ash now.

“What are you doing, Mummy?”

Beattie turned to see Lucy, still dressed up, at the threshold.

“Never mind.” Beattie rose and came to crouch in front of Lucy, putting her hands around the girl’s little shoulders. “You are so precious, my love,” she said.

Lucy, always prickly with Beattie, shrugged her off. “Come on. I need to buy honey and pork.”

Beattie followed Lucy into the bedroom, her heart thudding, but certain she had done the right thing.

There were only two ways that Henry could alleviate his guilt over Lucy’s fourth birthday. Either borrow money off Billy for a present and a cake, or drink sufficiently that the feeling simply went away. His stomach clenched at the thought of it—as it did every day—and yet the foretaste of the searing liquid across his tongue made his heart stop fluttering for a moment.

He decided to do both.

The little desk he worked at was under the window of the office, on the second floor, so he could see down to the darkly gleaming Derwent River. But he rarely looked up to admire it. Billy kept him very busy, always silently holding over his head the amount of money he had borrowed, the amount of goodwill he had already presumed upon. Henry felt the weight of that debt, leaden on his heart.

Still, he rose and went to Billy’s office. The door was always
open. Billy worked hard, no matter what anyone said about him, and was a good employer. Too good.

Henry knocked. Billy looked up and beckoned him in. “How can I help?”

Henry spoke plainly. “It’s Lucy’s birthday today, and I don’t get paid until Friday.”

“You want an advance on your wage?”

“Aye.” Henry eyed the brandy decanter on the corner of Billy’s desk.

Billy nodded. “Go on. Pour me one, too.”

Henry did as he was told.

“They are generous serves for this time of day.” Billy laughed, holding up his glass.

Henry gulped the brandy. Closed his eyes for a moment as the warmth spread through his chest.

“How much do you need?” Billy asked.

“Five shillings?”

Billy reached into his pocket and pulled out the coins, lining them up on the table. “Here you are, then.”

Henry scooped them up. “Just take the money out of—”

“Actually, Henry, I’d best not take them out of this week’s pay, for you’ll have none left at all.”

Henry looked up, licked his lips. A silence ensued, stretched out for long moments.

Billy reached for the brandy and poured him another. “I feel responsible for you, man. You were always a good winner back in Glasgow. Knew when to stop. I don’t know what happened, but the bad luck started when you chose that young
lass over your wife. Molly kept you straight. With Beattie, you’re blowing all over the place.”

The coins were growing warm in his palm. He couldn’t give them back, not now. It was his girl’s birthday. He’d been promising her a present for weeks. How could he bear to see her face disappointed this evening? He’d sooner go blind.

“Just take the money, Henry,” Billy said.

“Take it out of my next win at the table.”

Billy smiled bitterly. “You don’t win often enough for that to be a safe promise, man. Never mind. Just take it. Consider it a birthday bonus.”

Henry thanked Billy profusely, hating himself for sounding so grateful. So unmanly.

After work, he walked into town. He couldn’t go to the general store for a present, as he owed them money and they would want to be paid that first. His head cleared as he walked. What a depressing place the center of town had become, with grim, desperate people gathered to beg for jobs or money or just to be near other grim, desperate people in the hopes of not feeling so bad. Henry was proud that he was properly employed. Beattie complained constantly but had no idea how much better off they were than these low people whose hollow eyes followed him as he walked past. In and out of shops he went, spending his earnings. He bought a doll with china legs and rooted hair, and a sticky cake, stopped for a quick drink with the money left over, then returned home. The gate scraped on the flagstones as he opened it, and Lucy was at the door a moment later, in the little cotton frock her
mother had made for her out of one of Henry’s old shirts. That was the best Beattie could do for a birthday present.

“Daddy, Daddy!” she shouted, grasping his leg and hugging it savagely. “Did you bring me my present?”

“Inside, dearie. Give me a chance to catch my breath.”

Beattie was inside at the gas stove, stirring a thin soup. She barely looked up. She was angry at him. She was always angry at him.

“Well, now,” Henry said, taking Lucy on his lap. “Have you been a good lass?”

“Yes.”

“I shall ask your mother. Has she been a good lass today, Mother?”

Beattie raised a smile, touched the child’s hair. “The best.”

Henry indicated the bundles on the table. “Which one first?”

Lucy pointed at the square box, her little fingers dancing with excitement. Henry unwrapped it and lifted the lid. Lucy squealed. “Cake! Mummy, cake!”

Beattie glanced over and her eyes widened. “How much did that cost?”

Henry didn’t answer. He put the other bundle into Lucy’s hands, watched with joy as she unpicked the string, pulled aside the brown paper, and found the doll inside. Rather than squealing, she went completely silent.

“Do you like it, my love?”

Lucy touched the doll’s silky hair reverently. “I will love her forever,” she said.

“Henry—” Beattie began anxiously.

Henry shushed her with an irritable wave of his hand. “You wanted the child to have a cake and presents. Don’t be complaining now.”

“But—”

Henry pushed his chair back quickly. He couldn’t bear to be in the same room as Beattie’s anxious disapproval. “Call us when dinner is ready.”

“Can we have cake for dinner?” Lucy asked.

“No,” Beattie said quickly, as though she imagined he might say yes. “Dinner first, then cake.”

Henry pulled the little girl by her free hand. Her other arm was wrapped possessively around the doll’s middle. In the sitting room, she immersed herself in play. Henry sat in his chair and watched her. She chatted to the doll, long monologues punctuated by spaces for the doll to reply.

“What are you going to call her?” he asked.

“What’s your name again? When you’re not Daddy?”

“Henry.”

“I’ll call her Henry.”

“Henry’s a boy’s name. How about Henrietta?”

“Oh, yes. I like that. Do you like it, Henrietta?” Another silence. “Good, it’s decided, then.”

Lucy carefully tucked Henrietta into bed on the threadbare sofa, then put her finger against her lips. “Shh, now, Daddy. She has to sleep.”

“I’ll be quiet,” he whispered.

She clambered into his lap, wrapping her arms around his neck. Her face was close to his, her breath smelled milky and sweet. “I love you, Daddy.”

“I love you, too, my dear.”

“I love Mummy, too.”

He was silent.

“But I love you better,” she continued.

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