Read Wildflower Hill Online

Authors: Kimberley Freeman

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

Wildflower Hill (4 page)

BOOK: Wildflower Hill
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She pushed her toes hard into her shoes. “He’s married,” she managed.

He pressed his lips together, creating two deep lines that disappeared into his beard. “I see.”

“Should I still tell him?”

“Lassie, I don’t see that you’ve got any other option.”

Outside, the clouds had lifted and the rain had thinned. Beattie returned to Camille’s, ready to apologize to Antonia, to make excuses, to hang on to her job somehow. This wasn’t a time to be out of work. Everyone was talking about “the slump”; even the big shipping companies were wary about putting people on. Beattie knew she would have to beg. So she rang the doorbell and moved to the bay window to peer in. Antonia emerged from the downstairs fitting rooms. When she saw Beattie, her face took on a scowl.

Antonia opened the door a crack. “What is it?”

“I wanted to say sorry, I—”

“You look like a drowned cat. I don’t want the likes of you in my store, Beattie Blaxland. I’ve a reputation to uphold.”

“I’ll go home and change and come straight back,” Beattie said, aware that she sounded hopeless, frantic.

“Change? You can change your clothes, but you canna change what you are. Lady Miriam pointed out to me what’s been right under my nose. You’re with child. Not even married. And there are rumors that you run with Henry MacConnell. Is the bairn his, then? He has a wife, you know.”

“Please, Antonia,” Beattie begged, desperate. “I can’t manage without my wage. My family is—”

“You should have thought of all that before you brought your trouble through my doors. A dozen girls a day beg me for a job, and every one of them
not
pregnant. I’m not hard up for people to choose from. Why would I choose to keep you?”

“Please . . . please!”

“Lady Miriam has specifically said she won’t be back unless you’re gone. I have to think of my business.”

Beattie swallowed hard. She must have looked utterly desolate, because for a moment Antonia softened.

“I’m sorry, child.” Her voice was quiet, and she wouldn’t meet Beattie’s eyes. “But you’re not to set foot back in my store.” Then she pushed the door closed.

THREE
 

B
reathe in, breathe out.

Beattie stood on the street below the club. Tonight she was going to tell Henry. Her breath made a faint fog in front of her. Her stomach itched with anxiety. She tried to understand why she was afraid of him. He loved her, or so he said. He would stand by her. He wouldn’t be angry . . . would he? She had taken extra time with her makeup, making her eyes dark and soft, her lips red and peaked. If she were pretty enough, he would be kind to her. Take pity on her.

And yet how did she get to this place where she longed for pity? She had always been proud of her big dreams, her loud laugh, her brash casualness. Standing on the street, with the smell of roasting meat and cigarette smoke wafting from the restaurant, she realized horribly that those things were all a show, a childish pretension. After all, it was easier for her to talk about her big plans than do anything about them. It was easy to match Cora’s barbed wit and brazen confidence with a gallon of drink in her. But all she was, really, was the awkwardly thin and poor daughter of a maddeningly weak
mother and a foolishly idealistic father. Beattie knew this with such force that she almost turned and ran.

But she didn’t. Because it wasn’t just herself she had to take care of now. The child, whose first soft bumps against the wall of her belly she had felt that morning, needed a father.

The first stair was the hardest. Then she smelled the familiar cigar smoke, heard the familiar laughter—much louder than usual tonight—and rose toward it. Her heart was too big for her chest. She would tell Henry, she would have it out in the open. And then, however the pieces fell, they would fall.

She hadn’t counted on a party.

The club was bursting at the seams. Streamers hung from one side to the other, dangling dangerously close to the fireplace. The card table was gone, and in its place was a long dining table bearing an orgy of food. She blinked rapidly, searching the room for Henry. She didn’t want to have to speak to anyone else. Her lips were ready to say only one thing: “Henry, I’m pregnant.” But Henry was nowhere in sight.

“Come in, come in, Beattie!” This was Teddy Wilder, in his checked trousers and Fair Isle pullover. His cheeks were red and shining. “It’s a goodbye party. We’ll need you at the bar straightaway.”

“Goodbye?” Her heart jumped. Henry was leaving. Running away with the Irish wolfhound. “Who’s going?”

“Nobody you like, don’t worry,” Teddy said, snorting with laughter. “My brother, Billy. He’s skipping town. Off on a ship to Australia day after tomorrow.”

Then Cora was there, taking Beattie’s hand in her cool white one, dragging her toward the bar, shouting over the loud jazz music on the gramophone. “Did you hear? Billy’s going!” Cora could barely keep the excitement out of her voice. She despised Billy. Most people did. He was unpredictable, rude, vain. He was rumored to run with a street gang, to smoke opium, to misuse prostitutes. Beattie was never sure how many of the stories were true.

Teddy raced off, shouting and laughing at another friend, while Beattie clung to Cora. “Where’s Henry? I need to speak to him.”

“Not here yet. Cigarette?”

Beattie shook her head, but Cora lit up, her chin lifted so her elegant white throat was on show. “So, Billy’s being investigated over diddling the figures at Proudmoore’s.”

Beattie refocused, bringing her attention back to Cora, to the present. Henry wasn’t here. All her courage started to flee; she hoped she could regather it when he arrived. “Diddling the . . . ?”

“Aye, falsifying the account books. He’s running off before the police catch him up. His pa got him a job with a friend in Tasmania. Bottom of the world. Where he belongs.” She glanced around, making sure nobody was listening. “He did it, sure as anything, Beattie. He told Teddy so. Skimmed two hundred pounds for himself.”

“Henry’s not involved?” Billy worked in accounts as Henry’s supervisor at a shipping firm.

Cora shook her head emphatically. “No, Henry’s not got it
in him. But Billy, he’s a bad seed. I’ll be glad to see the back of him.”

Beattie forced a smile. “Teddy will miss him. He’ll be lonely.”

“Teddy will be fine,” Cora purred, lifting her eyebrows suggestively. “I’ll keep him very close company.”

Beattie couldn’t look at her. Why was it she, not Cora, who had fallen pregnant? The injustice of it burned, and suddenly, she needed to get away from Cora, with her perfect flat bust and stomach. She turned, began to hurry away, her head down, pushing people out of the way. Cora called after her imperiously, not used to Beattie cutting her out, but she ignored Cora’s voice, all of the other voices, the laughter, the pressing mob.

Then he caught her. “Beattie?”

“Henry!” Her voice was half relief, half fear.

“What’s wrong? You’re quite pale.”

“I’m . . .” She pulled herself together. “I have to speak with you. Now.”

“You’re speaking with me.”

“I mean about something important.” She looked around wildly. “Somewhere private.”

He drew his eyebrows down, an expression so familiar to her. She loved his serious face, his intelligent eyes. She loved them so much it hurt her. She tried to hope. He would know what to do. He would help her.

“Well, then,” he said, and grasped her wrist gently. They approached the back room, and Henry pushed the door in
only to find another couple, half dressed, on the daybed. With a muttered curse, he closed the door again. “Outside,” he said, not letting her go.

Now he led her through the crowd and down the stairs. His firm fingers were reassuring, and Beattie started to feel a strange peaceful acceptance, almost as though she were in a dream. The night air was cold in contrast, and she hadn’t brought her coat. She could smell approaching rain, the strong odor of bus fumes from up on Douglas Street.

“What’s this all about, then?” Henry asked. He gazed down on her with his steady gray eyes, and she savored the moment. She was madly in love with him; love would solve everything. Then a chill breeze sprang up and reminded her she had bare arms and a belly full of baby.

“Henry, I’m pregnant.”

He froze. A statue. Even in the dark, she could see his pupils shrink. For the first time since she’d met him, he looked uncertain. A second passed, another, and another, and her dreamy sureness washed away. He didn’t move nor say a word. She felt the sting of approaching tears, then the warm relief of them forming and flowing over.

“Oh, Beattie,” he said at last, so softly and so tenderly that it terrified her.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m so sorry.” As though it were solely her fault, as though there were something bad and faulty about her that had caused her to fall pregnant. As though he had nothing to do with it at all.

“No, no. I’m sorry,” he said. “I can’t . . .” He dropped his
head, pinching the bridge of his nose. Then gathered himself again and met her eyes. “My darling, I am married to somebody else. You know that.”

Her veins grew cold. “But . . . what about me?”

“Molly is my wife. It’s not that easy to—”

“Oh, God. Oh, God.” Beattie reeled away from him, all her instincts urging her to run.

But he caught her, pulled her close, covered her tear-stained face with kisses. “I love you, I love you. But here’s the truth. Molly will never grant me a divorce.”

“What shall I do?” Beattie sobbed. “I’ve already lost my job. I can’t even look after myself, let alone a babe.”

“I’ll help if I can,” Henry said. “Please be calm, and keep your voice quiet, my dear. Please be calm. You must tell me: does anybody else know?”

“Cora,” she confessed.

“Has she told Teddy?”

Beattie shook her head.

Henry drew a deep breath. “Here’s what will happen. We will go upstairs and fetch your coat, and we will tell everyone that you’re unwell and heading home. Then you must stay away from the club a little while.”

“But—”

“I just need some time. To organize things,” he said. “You do trust me, don’t you?”

A vast emptiness opened up inside her. She
didn’t
trust him. Of course she didn’t. It was the reason she had taken so long to tell him, after all. Agony to realize it.

“Will you do as I say?” he asked.

What choice did she have? She nodded but couldn’t find her voice to say yes.

Two weeks passed, and still no word from Henry. Each day, she fell further and further into the well of hopelessness. Every morning, she dressed and left the flat, so that Ma and Pa wouldn’t know she no longer had a job. Of course they would find out, when Ma went through her handbag looking for money and found none. Daily, she walked until her feet were swollen and invariably found herself at Glasgow Green. Everywhere new life was unfolding. The tight green shoots on the bitch and lime trees; the wildflowers bursting into color along the banks of the Clyde; the proud geese with their trains of clumsy-footed chicks. Inside her, too. Her child gently twitched against her belly, which grew manifestly and inescapably rounder.

But as well as new life, she saw other things on her walks through Glasgow, images that haunted her. Ragged women without homes, dirty children begging for coins or food, a grubby collection of old blankets in a back alley, waiting for its owner to come home to sleep in it. Her imagination, once given over to dreaming about dresses and successes, trod those back alleys without her permission. She saw herself and her child, she saw winter’s cold grasp approaching like a shadow. She saw a bleak, hungry future.

She returned home each day at dusk. Pa still on his typewriter, Ma easing her shoes off her tired feet after a day at the laundry where she worked and saying nothing to Pa with her
lips, although her eyes silently begged him to find real work. Beattie withdrew and they didn’t notice.

Cora didn’t call on her, either, to see how she was. She was surprised by how sad that made her. Had Beattie’s friendship been so peripheral to Cora? Cora had not once, since the day Beattie had confessed she was pregnant, asked her how she was or if she, Cora, could help. It was as though she had forgotten Beattie’s predicament. Just as quickly, now, it seemed she had forgotten Beattie, too.

Beattie waited. She waited for Henry. She waited for her parents to notice she had no job. She waited for her belly to grow large enough that her dresses no longer hid it. She waited for the consequences to come.

And then, one morning, they did.

Beattie was in the bathroom, stepping out of the bath with its chipped enamel and rusty taps. Her mother walked in.

It was deliberate, of course. The suspicions must have been prickling her, and she knew Beattie was in there. The bolt on the bathroom door hadn’t worked for months, but all the residents who used the bathroom had grown used to leaving their slippers just outside the door, a signal that the room was in use.

Beattie gasped, reaching for a towel. Naked, there was no hiding her swollen belly. Ma kicked the door closed behind her, strode over, and snatched the towel away. Then she grasped Beattie’s hands in hers roughly and spread them apart.

“Ma . . .”

Her eyes traveled Beattie’s body from throat to thighs, then
she dropped her daughter’s hands and finally looked at her face.

“Ma, I’m sorry,” Beattie said, but she saw no pity in her mother’s eyes. Just panic.

“You have to go.”

“No! Ma, don’t throw me out.”

“Your father must never know. The shame. The
shame.
” Ma’s hands flapped like trapped birds. “Get dressed. Go.”

Beattie gathered her towel against her, heart thudding in her throat. “I’ve nowhere to go.”

“I dinna care!” Ma’s voice was growing hysterical. “Your father will die for shame. He’ll never get another decent job if it’s known his daughter is a . . . a . . .” Ma couldn’t find the words, descended into noisy coughing.

“But I—”

Beattie’s protests were cut short by a sharp slap to her face. She stared up at her mother, who was wild-eyed.

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