Read Wildflower Hill Online

Authors: Kimberley Freeman

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

Wildflower Hill (3 page)

She paused. Her father never showed real affection, and this little morsel—
my dear
—grabbed her by the heart. She returned to the table, sitting opposite him to watch while he typed. She’d inherited his dark hair and blue eyes but not, small mercies, his distinctive nose and lipless mouth. He seemed to her in that moment as he had always seemed: a stranger right beside her, somebody she knew well but didn’t know at all. Lack of money had driven them from London to Glasgow, where Beattie’s maternal grandmother delighted in taking judicious pity on them. Nobody had yet offered Pa another teaching job, but he refused to look for any other kind. He clung to the idea that his intellect would triumph. So he worked on his book, certain that when it was finished, a publisher would buy it and a university—somewhere in the world—would have him. Granny thought this was rot. If Ma agreed, she didn’t let on.

Pa became aware of her gaze and glanced up, puzzled. “Beattie?”

“Do you love me, Pa?” Where had those words come from? She’d not intended to say them.

“Well . . . I . . .” Flustered, he pulled off his spectacles and rubbed the lenses vigorously on his shirt. “Yes, Beattie.”

“Whatever I do? Will you always?” Her heart sped, driven by a primitive fear that he could read her thoughts.

“As a father should.”

She stood, thought about touching his wrist softly, then changed her mind. “I’m not tired,” she lied. “I’m just fine.”

He didn’t look up. “Good girl. I must keep working. This book isn’t going to write itself.”

The sound of the typewriter followed her to the bedroom, where she found her shoes and buckled them on. Ma snored softly, and it cheered Beattie a little to see her face looking so peaceful. She hadn’t seen Ma looking anything but tired and anxious for a long time. Pinned to the wall was the pattern for a dress Beattie had been working on. The brown paper sagged against the tacks that held it up: she hadn’t had the heart for it since she’d discovered she was pregnant. Why make a dress that wouldn’t fit for much longer?

Beattie sat on the edge of the bed and pressed her forearm across her belly. What mysteries unfolded in there? What strange new life was moving and growing? The thought made her dizzy with fear. She drew her eyebrows down tightly, willing her womb to expel its contents. But nothing happened, nothing ever happened.

TWO
 

W
eeks passed, and the stubborn thing clung to her insides. She imagined cramps where there was nothing but twitches of fear. In the meantime, her girdles grew tighter and—because she’d always been slight, almost bony—the first swell of her stomach became visible. She gave thanks for the figure-skimming shift dresses she wore, for her wrap coat, for Henry’s preference to make love in the dark, and for her ability to let seams out invisibly. And soon, surely, the bleeding would start, just as she’d imagined it a hundred times, a thousand times. The nightmare would be over, and life could go on as it was supposed to.

She found it increasingly difficult to get out of bed, and one chilly April morning, she hung on to sleep in the gray dark until her mother gently woke her.

“Beattie. Beattie, dear. You’ll be late for work.”

Beattie squeezed open her eyes.

“I’m sorry,” Ma said. “But I’d hate for you to get your boss offside. These aren’t easy times. You canna lose your job.”

“Thanks, Ma,” she said, pushing off the covers and rubbing her eyes.

Ma stood, coughing loudly. The coughing seemed to go on forever, then finally, she had it under control. Meanwhile, Beattie dressed quickly.

“That cough sounds bad,” she said.

“Och, I’ll be fine.”

“It’s been a week. Perhaps you should go to see a doctor.”

Ma turned to her with sad eyes. Her eyelids drooped at the outer corners, as if this were where she wore the weight of all her worries. “We canna afford a doctor, child, nor a day off. I’ll be well in a day or two.”

Beattie watched as she went through to the living area, then ran a comb through her hair and put on her makeup in a dim little mirror propped up on a pile of suitcases. Did Pa not see what Ma was going through? Did he not think once that if he just got himself an honest job . . . Of course he didn’t see it. Ma had married him for his brilliant mind, and now she was shackled to it.

Camille’s boutique, where Beattie worked four days a week, was owned by Antonia Hanway, sister of the famed James Hanway who ran a dress-cutting business on Bath Lane. Beattie’s secret hope was that she would make a good impression on Antonia and one day turn this goodwill into a position with James: as a seamstress, a dress cutter, perhaps even a designer. She kept a few folded sketches in her handbag, just in case he ever came by the boutique. He never did.

She was still yawning when she arrived at work, which drew a stern glance from Antonia. Antonia was a difficult woman, though Beattie didn’t think it was her intention to be so. Clients had to make appointments before coming to shop, and then Beattie and the other assistants had to wait on them as though they were royalty. Sometimes, in fact, they
were
royalty, and Beattie presumed the constant anxiety was what made Antonia so insufferable to work for. Beattie didn’t mind, because she loved the shop. Racks of dresses waited in straight lines across the checkboard floor, the basement fitting rooms were lit by glittering chandeliers, and a yellow canary in a wrought-iron cage fluttered his wings as he watched the street through the bay window. His name was Rex. Lorna, one of the other assistants, had told her that he was the fourth yellow canary named Rex that Antonia had sat in the window. “One dies, and she brings in another the next day,” Lorna said. “Doesn’t like her clients to have to think about death, even though it will happen to them all. Uppity cows.”

Beattie learned to love some of the clients who came into Camille’s, but others she hated with passion, none more so than Lady Miriam Minchin, a razor-thin woman in her forties who was as tight with her kind words for others as she was easy with her money for herself. It happened that Beattie was serving her that morning when she felt the first shaft of pain, hard in her left side.

At first she thought she could ignore it. She fetched gown after gown from the racks and hurried them downstairs to the fitting room. Her heart picked up its rhythm, hope filtering into it: it was really happening. The hot baths, the cod liver
oil, the endless wishing had finally worked. But at the same time, she was terrified. What if it were painful? Messy? How was she to deal with it discreetly at work?

“I like the blue on you,” Antonia was saying to Lady Miriam as Beattie tried to appear calm. “What do you think, Beattie?”

“The cut is beautiful,” Beattie said. “And the color is so flattering against your skin—” A spasm of pain shooting deep into her groin made her gasp involuntarily and clutch at her belly.

“What is it, Beattie?” Antonia asked sharply.

“I have . . . a pain . . .” This wasn’t how it was meant to be! She was meant to bleed quietly and quickly at home, with the bathroom close by. Nobody was ever to know.

A moment passed when nothing happened, when the only movement was Lady Miriam’s eyes as they skipped from Beattie’s face to her belly, then back to her face. Beattie shrank. Lady Miriam knew.

“I have to go home,” Beattie managed, turning away, running for the stairs.

“Wait, lassie!” Antonia said, clearly panicking about the impression Beattie was making on Lady Miriam.

“Let her go,” Lady Miriam said.

She escaped. Up the stairs and out of the boutique into the drizzly street.

An instant later, the pain disappeared. She caught her breath.

Home: she had to get home. She was three blocks away before she realized she’d left her coat at the shop. Goose bumps
prickled along her arms. The damp gray street unfolded beneath her feet; her breath was louder than the clatter of traffic.

Then another pain. Hard and sharp; it bent her in two. She forced air into her lungs, knowing she couldn’t go home like this. Pa would see her, and besides, she needed a doctor.

She found a dry place under a shop awning and tried to clear her mind sufficiently to think. She had no money for a doctor: Ma had spoken of it only that morning. But she was consumed by selfish panic. Then she remembered the time at the club when Henry and Billy Wilder had been too drunk to wear each other’s jokes any longer, and they’d come to blows. Billy broke a glass on Henry’s head, and the bleeding wouldn’t stop. Henry—a handkerchief pressed against the wound—had made a midnight visit to Dr. Mackenzie on West George Lane, along with a freshly contrite Billy. Dr. Mackenzie had delivered Henry into the world thirty years before and been his family physician ever since. Perhaps if she asked for his help, threw herself on his mercy, told him the child she was losing was Henry’s . . .

But the shame, the trouble, she would bring to Henry.

The pain was too intense; she needed help. She turned and headed back toward West George Lane. The clouds overhead darkened, and the drizzle deepened to rain. Hard, cold rain that sluiced into the gutters and jumped after the wheels of motorcars speeding past. She stayed close to the buildings so she wouldn’t get splashed, but by the time she arrived, her shoes were sodden. Then she stood in those sodden shoes, unable to push the door to Dr. Mackenzie’s surgery open. There were no awnings to shelter under, and the rain fell on her as
though she were no more important than one of the rubbish-filled crates that sat outside the door across the narrow lane.

In that moment, she believed that she wasn’t.

Tears welled in her eyes, and for the first time since she’d realized she was pregnant, Beattie allowed herself to cry about it. To cry for the loss of her innocence, her pride, what tatters of self-respect remained after her family’s demotion in life. But also to cry for the child, who did not ask to be conceived and would never have a chance to breathe the damp air of Glasgow, feel its mother’s touch, nor see its father’s storm-gray eyes smile. She wept into her hands as the rain thundered down on her, and then, like magic, the torrent suddenly stopped.

“Are you well, lassie?”

She looked up. All around, the rain still bucketed down, but a tall, broad-shouldered gentleman with a huge black umbrella stood next to her, sheltering her.

Beattie palmed away her tears, gathering herself. “Thank you, you’re so kind. I . . . I should just go home.”

“You need to see the doctor?” He indicated the door to the surgery.

She glanced from it to the gentleman and shook her head. “I’ve not enough money.”

“Och, it will be fine. Come in. I canna leave you out on the street in the rain in such distress.” He shook out a set of keys and opened the door to usher her forward, and she realized that the gentleman
was
Dr. Mackenzie. He placed his umbrella in a stand near the door and asked her to wait in the empty front room, dripping on the wooden floor, while he
unbuttoned his coat. The front desk was unattended. From behind it, he fetched her a scratchy white towel.

“I usually don’t work on a Thursday afternoon,” he said. “You’re lucky you found me.”

She toweled her hair. The room smelled strongly of lemon polish and ointment.

“Come through,” he said, and led her to an examination room with a narrow bed under a white light hanging on a chain. He sat at his desk, but she didn’t feel comfortable enough to do anything but stand in front of him, like a naughty schoolgirl.

“Go on, then, lassie, what’s your trouble?”

“I’m pregnant and . . .” Her cheeks flushed hot despite her shivering body. “I think I’m losing the baby. I’ve got a terrible pain . . .”

He didn’t frown or give her any indication of disapproval. Instead, he stood and helped her up onto the bed. “Let me see, then,” he said, smoothing her damp dress over her belly and running his hands firmly over it. She watched his face, half a breath held in her lungs. The pores on his nose were large, and his gray whiskers grew up high on his cheeks.

“Do you mind?” he said, “I’ll have to lift your dress out of the way.”

She nodded, closing her eyes. Then his cool hands were on her bare skin, rolling down the top of her girdle, pressing, feeling. Assuredly reaching lower, to places that only Henry had ever touched. But it felt different this time. Not hot and wild. Cold and clinical.

“You’re not bleeding at all. Has there been any blood?”

“No,” she managed.

“How old are you?”

“Twenty-one,” she lied.

“The pain, is it similar to the cramps one has during one’s monthly courses?”

Beattie squirmed with embarrassment to be talking about such things with a man. “No, it’s much lower down, on the left side. In fact . . .” In her shame and fear, she hadn’t noticed. “I think it’s going away.”

He fumbled with her clothes, and she realized she was dressed again. She opened her eyes and sat up. Dr. Mackenzie was back in his seat, but she remained on the bed.

“It’s quite common at this stage of pregnancy to have the kind of pain you’re describing. It’s your body getting ready for birth. The ligaments in your womb are stretching. You’re young, so it hurts a little worse for you. You’ve probably only just stopped growing.”

Birth? She hadn’t even contemplated it. Her head swam.

“So you needn’t be worried. The baby is perfectly well and safe.”

The inescapability of her situation was like a stone dropped on her stomach. “No!” she said before she could stop herself. Tears brimmed again, but she held them back.

Dr. Mackenzie’s eyebrows shot up. “Oh, I see.”

“Thank you,” she said, pretending everything was fine, climbing down from the bed. “I shan’t take up another moment of your time . . .” But the sobs were bubbling out of her then, and he sat her firmly in a chair next to his desk and handed her his handkerchief.

“You’re not married, are you?”

“No,” she said.

“Does the father know?”

She thought about Henry, about how Dr. Mackenzie had known him as a wee lad. “Not yet.”

“You need to tell him.” His voice grew soft. “You’ve a babe in there, lassie. He or she has been in there about three months. The chance of you miscarrying now is very small. Do you understand what I’m saying to you? There’s no way out now. You need to tell him.”

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