Published by HarperCollinsPublishers 1 London Bridge Street London SE1 9GF
Copyright © Alexandra Connor 2001
Alexandra Connor asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
This novel is a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the nonexclusive, nontransferable right to access and read the text of this ebook onscreen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins e-books.
HarperCollinsPublishers has made every reasonable effort to ensure that any picture content and written content in this ebook has been included or removed in accordance with the contractual and technological constraints in operation at the time of publication.
Source ISBN: 9780006513520
Ebook Edition © FEBRUARY 2016 ISBN: 9780007400911
This book is dedicated to my sister Diana Brierley-Jones. Love you, kiddo – but I still haven’t forgotten the marshmallow …
Hunter’s moon – the moon following the harvest moon.
Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable
It took a moment for him to realise what he had done. A second spent staring at the dead woman, then a quick glance upwards to the bedrooms. Outside the sky was coming into moonlight, a horse stamping its feet in the driveway and whinnying with impatience. He turned down the gaslights. Then he saw a figure silhouetted in the doorway.
Panic made him fling open the window next to him and climb out, then run down the lawn towards the drive without daring to look back. Breathing heavily, he headed towards the road leading down to Oldham. A couple of men passed him and nodded automatically. He was known, a man of importance. Their superior. They would remember seeing him … He stopped, watched them pass. Then as soon as he heard their footsteps die away he started running again.
The moon – a hunter’s moon – had now risen and he thought fleetingly how it would sneak under the blinds back at the house and fall across the carpet. It would glow, melancholic, on every surface, wiping its yellow feet on everything it touched.
He stopped; looked round. He would get away. But where? He had nowhere to go. This was his town, his home. This was where his family was … Sweating, he leaned against the wall of an alleyway, limp with terror. Calm yourself, he thought, be calm. It was a mistake, a mistake. You can get over this, you can live with this. Unexpectedly, an uncanny peace came over him. He could do it, he would blot it out, put it up on a shelf at the back of his memory and leave it there.
He began to walk again. Yes, he could live with it. All he had to do was to close down his conscience, find a way to stop the sickness welling up. He had thought fleetingly of giving himself up – but how could he explain what he had done? How he had lost control and hit out – and then kept hitting.
They would go to the house and see that it had been no accident, no random blow, but a concentrated violence of blows. A determined intent to kill.
At first, they wouldn’t believe it of him. Not him.
You have to forget it, he willed himself. But the calm had gone and in its place was the knowledge that he could never forget it. Oh Jesus, he breathed, oh Jesus …
He could never go home. Never go back. He would run instead, and hide and hope they never caught him. But at night, every night, he knew he would replay what he had done. Over and over.
He kept running, but even now he could hear and see her on the flagstones and cobbles. Every lamp carried her eyes in its light; every bush and wall he passed, her figure.
And overhead the wide yellow hunter’s moon tracked him and illuminated every step of the useless, hopeless way.
Barely thirteen yards from the railway viaduct stood the sour corner building of the children’s home. It had been built in the 1830s to house the abandoned or orphaned offspring of the industrial towns Oldham and Salford. The smaller, surrounding semirural villages like Dobcross, Diggle, Uppermill and Failsworth were poor, populated with mill and pit workers, but an illegitimate child there was usually assimilated into the extended family. Often, daughters caught out had their bastard offspring raised as their sibling. As for the incest, that was a brewing undercurrent in the worst slums, but those unlucky offspring were also soaked into the family, unsure of their parentage and belligerent with the outside world.
But in the larger towns, like Oldham and Salford, there was not the same tightly meshed community. It was not uncommon for an infant to be abandoned on the stone steps of the Netherlands Orphanage, without even a name to call its own. These were the forgotten children, often sickly, frequently little more than a day or so old.
It was no real secret where these children came from: most were the casualties of streets like Grimshaw Street, or the notorious area called The Bent. From the 1850s most of Oldham’s Irish population lived here, a small webbing of streets occupied by low pubs, brothels and boarding houses where the hopeless ended up. If you found your way into The Bent, the chances were you wouldn’t get out again.
For a child born there the future was bleak. If a girl had a struggling, but respectable family, she might end up in one of the mills; a boy in the pit. But those were the fortunate ones. All too often the children of The Bent became ensnared in thievery or prostitution. Of these, the lucky ones – if you could call them lucky – were the ones abandoned at Netherlands Orphanage.
Their future was harsh, but secure – set to the rule of order and religion. If they survived a sickly start they would be fed and clothed, even taught a trade in time. Behind the soot-darkened, red-brick walls, a fierce little army of poorly paid staff sucked children with no name and no past into their regimented system. A few of the staff were tyrants, getting their revenge on the world by bullying their charges, but some – a few – were kindly.
The orphanage was run by Miss Clare Lees, a tall, prematurely stooped woman in her fifties, who had risen from being an orphan at the home, to its principal. Not that anyone would ever refer to her past to her face. To all intents and purposes, she behaved as though she despised the children under her care and had nothing in common with them. But it was a front. She was as much a slum child as the ones under her care.
Clare Lees had never married, never had children, and had seldom ventured far from the high walls of the home. This was her kingdom, here she was ruler. The terrified child who had been abandoned fifty years earlier had metamorphosed into an unfeeling martinet. It was not her nature to be cruel, but kindness eluded her. She could not feel – or show – what she had never experienced.
The kindness was left to others, who had come in from the outside. Like Ethel Cummings.
‘Alice, come here!’ she hissed under her breath.
A little girl obediently got to her feet and walked towards her. She was small for her age and dark-haired, her eyes black-fringed. She had a very mature face for a child, looking almost like a tiny, exotic woman.
‘Alice, what’s that in your hand?’ Ethel asked kindly, leaning down, her bulk making the movement awkward.
The matron looked at her. ‘Alice, show me.’
Reluctantly, the little girl opened her hand. There was a pebble in her palm.
‘Why, it’s just a stone –’
‘It’s a jewel!’ Alice said defiantly, closing her fingers over it. ‘And it’s mine.’
Ethel sighed, then glanced over her shoulder as a bell rang. The sound echoed emptily down the corridor. One ring, two rings. Ethel breathed out and relaxed. Thank God it wasn’t for her, she had had enough of Miss Lees for one day.
Hurriedly she moved Alice down the narrow corridor towards the nearest dormitory. It was empty, as most of the children were in the yard taking their daily exercise. More like prisoners than children, Ethel had said to her husband, the little things pushed out in all weathers, walking round and round in circles. They should be playing, running on grass and climbing trees …
‘Give over, Ethel,’ he had replied. ‘You’ll lose your job if you keep trying to change things.’
‘But it’s not good for them!’ she had answered hotly. ‘When I think how our boys were brought up –’
‘They weren’t orphans,’ Gilbert had retorted, his tone sharp. ‘Oh listen, luv,’ he’d said more kindly, ‘you do what you can for them. Don’t make waves or that cow Lees will fire you and then what good will you be to any of them?’
Ethel had known he was right. So she bit her tongue repeatedly, and bent under the myriad tyrannies of Netherlands. It seemed to her that many of the children were cowed by the sheer size of the home, and the fact that they had nothing they could call their own. Nothing to cling on to for comfort. Every piece of clothing had been handed down many times over: when a child grew out of it, it was patched and passed on to another. Likewise with shoes. Even underwear, faded with use, was boiled and handed on.
Every child had short hair too, in order to make sure that there was no outbreak of nits – and to make it easier for the staff to comb and wash on Monday nights, when queues of little bodies waited silently for their turn at the tap. None of the children complained, in fact they spoke little and in whispers to avoid drawing attention to themselves. There was no individuality and any high spirits were soon dampened by the crushing indifference of the system.
Naturally the boys and girls were separated and housed in different wings. The doors spelled it out for them – ‘BOYS’ over the entrance to one side of the home, and ‘GIRLS’ over the entrance of the other. They exercised at different times too and could – for all they knew – have been in a single-sex institution. Clare Lees was very firm about there being no fraternising. After all, wasn’t that how these children had come about? Boys and girls getting together …? She shuddered at the thought. Oh no, she would have none of that behaviour.
Punishment was harsh if anyone ever broke her rules. Several years earlier one girl had somehow formed a friendship with one of the boys. Notes had been exchanged, secrets, longings, written in Poor Home script. It had been innocent and silly, but when it was discovered the girl was made an example of in front of the school. Her hair had been cut to her scalp, and round her neck was hung a board with the word ‘WHORE’ in red letters. She wore the board for a month.
Now Ethel looked down at the little girl in front of her and then impulsively gathered Alice into her arms. She knew she shouldn’t – it was frowned upon to show affection – but this little one was so different from the others.
Immediately Alice responded and nestled against her, her eyes closing. If the truth be known, Ethel was afraid for Alice Rimmer. She was too pretty, for a start, too full of spirit which even years in the orphanage hadn’t dampened. Where her spirit came from, God only knew. Her background was a mystery, the only information sketchy. Apparently she had come to the home when she was nearly a year old. Some council man had delivered her early one November morning. Her parents were dead, he told the principal; Alice Rimmer was just another poor child of the parish, destined to live off charity.
Ethel remembered first seeing Alice when she came to work at Netherlands a few months later. She’d been more outspoken then, and had showed her surprise at Alice’s appearance.
‘Oh, what a beautiful child! This one will be adopted all right.’
Irritated, Clare Lees had shaken her head. ‘No, she’s to stay here. No one’s to adopt her.’
Ethel’s mouth had fallen open. ‘But she’d find a home, no trouble.’
Miss Lees’ tone was impatient. ‘No one is to adopt this child. Alice Rimmer is to stay here until she is old enough to leave and find her own way in the world.’
Still sitting on the edge of the dormitory bed, the matron stroked the top of Alice’s head and frowned at the old memory. It wasn’t right, she thought. Alice could easily have found a new family, new siblings … She looked down at the four-year-old sitting on her lap. Oh luv, where did you come from? She had the look of breeding, that was for sure. Such a stunning child wasn’t from farm or factory workers. Ethel had seen the usual depressing run of poor children: the whey complexions, the undernourished limbs, the flat expression in the eyes.
But there was a gloss about Alice which she had to have inherited from money and position … Ethel rocked the child absent-mindedly. She was so distinctive that her looks would give her away anywhere. But although Ethel had asked the office secretary – very furtively – about Alice, there was nothing to discover. Only that her parents were dead. Apparently there were no grandparents, no brothers and sisters, no home. Alice Rimmer was just another foundling
She didn’t look like the usual foundling, Ethel thought for the hundredth time. Maybe some society woman had been caught out, leaving the pregnancy too long to abort the unwanted child. It would certainly explain the exotic looks. Ethel put her plump arms tightly around the child. Maybe one day she would see a photograph in the paper and it would all click. Maybe Alice was the child of royalty or nobility, Ethel thought fancifully, her parents still alive somewhere. Of course! That was why she wasn’t able to be adopted. Her own people meant to come back for Alice one day.
And then again, maybe they would leave her in Salford, and forget her. It happened all the time. Children no one wanted, no one gave a damn about …
Ethel took hold of Alice’s hand, her fingers still clutching the pebble. One day you’ll come into your own, my love, she thought. One day it will all come out. No one can hide the sun under a blanket for ever.
The door banged closed behind Ethel. The overcast day made the room dim. Heavy furniture, old-fashioned and well polished, surrounded her, the floorboards shining like glass. The children did that. It was one of their duties – to keep the principal’s office in immaculate condition. It was good practice for them, Clare Lees explained, for the time when the girls went into service.
Nervously Ethel glanced at the clock on the mantelpiece. It was hideous, she thought, with thick black hands and a bad-tempered tick. Her glance wandered to the window, but there was no view worth seeing, only the high wall about four yards away, mottled with chimney soot, with not even a weed to break up the lines of brick monotony.
A bell rang outside. Once, twice, three times – dinner, Ethel thought. In a minute the children would make their way to the dining room. But they would move quietly, not like normal children, and quietly they would stand for grace and then quietly sit down. Unnatural …
Ethel jumped at the sound of her name and got to her feet as Miss Lees walked in. Automatically Ethel smoothed her uniform over her prominent bosom and straightened her white matron’s cap.
Clare Lees moved over to her desk, her stooped figure casting a shadow on the glossy floorboards. Her dress was dark, the hem brushing her ankles, her laced boots functional. Calmly she turned to look at Ethel, her eyes weary and suspicious at the same time.
‘Sit down,’ she said, taking a seat herself behind her desk. Her voice, Ethel noted, had little trace of an Oldham accent. Odd, that. ‘I want a word with you.’
‘You’re a good worker, but you spend too much time with the children.’ Clare laced her fingers together. She wasn’t cruel, just remote. ‘We have a home to run here, we can’t afford to waste time –’
‘It’s not wasting time, talking to the children,’ Ethel replied warmly. ‘They need a bit of affection, attention. It’s only right.’
‘I know what’s right for Netherlands,’ Clare Lees replied coolly. ‘This isn’t the first time I’ve had to talk to you. I thought you’d learned your lesson. But you can’t seem to abide by my rules, Mrs Cummings. Why is that?’
Ethel bit her lip. She had done what she swore she wouldn’t. Her bloody mouth! Why couldn’t she hold her tongue, like Gilbert said?
‘Miss Lees,’ she replied quietly, ‘you’re right, I should do as you say.’
If she lost her place here she would lose a reasonable wage and God knew, she needed to bring money in. Her sons had been sent to fight in France, although Gilbert was too bad with his chest to be called up. But he did have a part share of a window-cleaning round and helped with the odd flitting when they were pushed. Yet although money was tight, there was more to it than that. Ethel needed to stay at Netherlands for other reasons. The children. She might be fooling herself, but she believed they needed her; needed someone they could talk to. The ones that wanted to talk, that was. Like Alice … Suddenly Ethel realised that if she lost her job she would probably never see Alice again.
‘Miss Lees, I’m sorry,’ she said, her tone placating. ‘Truly I am.’
Ethel knew that grovelling would work, and it did. The principal smiled her snow smile …
You could have been quite a handsome woman, Ethel thought, someone’s wife, someone’s mother … Pity shifted inside her heart. It wasn’t that difficult to see the lost child in the woman sitting in front of her.
But Clare Lees’ next words shook Ethel to the core.
‘In particular, it has been brought to my attention that you are paying too much attention to Alice Rimmer.’
Ethel flushed. ‘Well, I –’
‘We can’t have favourites here,’ Clare went on, seeing from Ethel’s face that she had scored a direct hit.
So she was fond of the child. Well, well, well … Clare sighed to herself. She was ashamed of the fact, but she didn’t like Alice Rimmer – and she wasn’t sure why. Perhaps she was too pretty, too wilful, but something about the child rankled.
‘Alice Rimmer could turn out to be a difficult girl,’ Clare went on. ‘She’s very high-spirited, giddy.’ She expected Ethel to interrupt, and was almost disappointed when the matron didn’t. ‘I think she’s a child we have to control and watch carefully. I want her to leave Netherlands as a credit to us.’
‘I think she will,’ Ethel said carefully. ‘In fact, I’m sure she will.’
Why was the principal so rattled about Alice? Did she know something about the child which no one else did? Or did she simply dislike her?
Clare sighed. ‘Mrs Cummings, haven’t you noticed that Alice Rimmer can be defiant?’
‘Well, she does have a mind of her own.’
Clare’s gaze hardened. ‘That’s what I’m afraid of. Alice Rimmer is an orphan. She has no reason to have a mind of her own. The girl has no family – and no chance in this world unless she knows her place. She has no cause to be proud – or to think that she’s special.’
Oh, so that’s it, Ethel thought, you can see something in Alice which you envy. She might be orphan, but she has the looks and spirit which could enable her to make something out of her life. Ethel glanced down at her hands. She would have to be very careful from now on.
She didn’t believe that Clare Lees was vindictive, but she was certainly insecure – and that made her dangerous. Netherlands was her whole world. Outside there was only disorder. The country was at war, but within these walls there was little hint of the chaos beyond. Inside, Clare Lees could control everything. Or so she thought.
But Ethel also knew instinctively that, given time, Alice would escape the home and survive outside. Which was why Clare Lees was jealous of her. And jealousy, Ethel was aware, could destroy people.
‘I’m glad we’ve had this talk. We needed to get matters sorted out. After all,’ Clare said, rising to her feet to deliver the final blow, ‘it would be a pity to lose you.’
Winter came in fast and hard that year, Netherlands cold, the fire in the girls’ dining room inadequate and only warming the nearest table – which was where the staff ate.
It was a bitter Sunday in November, Miss Lees toying with some tough lamb for lunch. On her left sat her assistant, Dolly Blake, and on her right the Reverend Grantley studied the gravy which had just been poured over his meat. He sniffed, his head bent down, intoning the grace automatically although he was still eyeing the gravy through half-opened lids.
No one was uncharitable enough to mention the vicar’s strange hair, or the fact that it was patently dyed. He was, after all, the only cleric who attended Netherlands regularly and he was responsible for reporting back to his superiors to ensure further financial support. So he was flattered and indulged by Miss Lees and all the staff. They puffed up his vanity and fussed him into thinking he was important – something he needed to believe desperately. A petty man, he had long given up his dreams of advancement. Bullied outside, he liked to visit the home where he was superior, the foundlings in awe of him.
Dolly glanced at the top of Mr Grantley’s head and winked at Ethel, sitting further down the table. Ethel smiled back, watching her. Dolly was a natural politician, with her sights set on running Netherlands after Clare Lees retired. ‘Why not?’ she had said to Ethel. ‘It’s a good job. Better than the mill or cleaning out some snotty cow’s fire grate at five in the morning.’
The vicar finished grace and then prodded his meat to check for signs of life. Satisfied that it was beyond resurrection, he cut off a piece and began to chew. Slowly.
‘So, Mr Grantley,’ Dolly said, in her best voice, the one she used for people she thought were her betters, ‘how are you keeping? I heard you had had a cold.’
He swallowed manfully, his expression all holy tolerance.
‘I …’ A piece of gristle stuck in his throat and he coughed loudly, waving his napkin in front of him like a white flag. ‘I’ve been better.’
You can say that again, Ethel thought, looking at Dolly, who was all mock sympathy. It’ll do you no good; the vicar’s not powerful, he’s just the governors’ poodle. Oh, Dolly, she mused, you think you’re so clever.
‘Perhaps a little whisky would help,’ Dolly went on, adding hurriedly, ‘for medicinal purposes, of course.’
‘I believe in setting an example,’ Mr Grantley replied, finding some gristle in a back tooth and sucking his teeth reflectively. ‘I have to be careful. A man in my position knows that all eyes are on him.’
Nodding, Dolly watched him suck his teeth again and looked away. The man was a pig, but it didn’t do to let her thoughts show … Like the children, she ate hurriedly, hungrily, her thoughts turning elsewhere. When she finished work that night, she would go to her room and write a letter to Andy. He had been posted to France to fight. Silly sod, he shouldn’t have volunteered like that, Dolly thought. Why not wait until he was called up? It was all right being a hero, but what about her?
She missed him … Her eyes wandered round the rows of tables. The girls sat together in ages, the smallest ones nearest to the staff table. When Andy and she got married they could run this place, no problem. He’d be caretaker and she’d be principal. The thought warmed Dolly, almost made the food taste good in her mouth. Her eyes glanced over to the vicar, still picking at his lamb. He’s lucky to get it in wartime, Dolly thought. They don’t have lamb in the Army. Andy would be grateful for it, but not this old coot. I hope he chokes.
A child sneezed suddenly, Dolly frowned.
‘Oh no, not a cold. That’s all we need,’ she said to Ethel, hurriedly reassuring the vicar, ‘It’s not your cold, of course,’ as if there were a pecking order to chills, ‘but we have to be so careful here, Mr Grantley. If one child gets a cold, they all do.’ And that meant more work, she thought to herself. One snotty nose was all it took …
Ethel knew exactly what she was thinking. Dolly might think she could fool the vicar, but not Ethel, She looked back to her plate. Honest to God, she thought, this was never lamb! It tasted more like something that had been pulling a cart yesterday. She chewed on a piece of the hard meat and then looked down the table again.
‘I find it so bracing, this cold weather,’ Dolly went on, her voice ludicrously forced. ‘So good for the lungs.’
‘Not if you’re recovering from a cold,’ Mr Grantley said darkly, turning over a suspicious-looking piece of meat with the end of his knife. ‘I’ve heard that chill weather can turn a cold into pneumonia. I had two parishioners who died last winter from colds. Never stood a chance. They were fine one Sunday and then,’ he paused, flicking over the meat like a corpse on a slab, ‘bang! Dropped down dead. From cold. Pure cold.’
More likely that they’d frozen their bloody arses off in your church, Ethel thought wryly.
‘Well, you must take care of yourself, vicar. No one would want to miss one of your services,’ Dolly ventured, watching, glassy-eyed, as the clergyman began to pick at a piece of gristle stuck in his front teeth.
‘I am always available to my flock, cold or no cold. I have to be.’ He sucked his teeth forcefully to release the wedge of gristle. ‘People look up to me; they look to me to set an example.’
Ethel was certain that Dolly did not see the humour of the situation, and regarded her thoughtfully. Dolly’s high spirits were a little too excessive for lunch with Mr Grantley. She must have heard from Andy, Ethel thought. Did she really believe that she had it all worked out? Most of Salford knew that Andy was writing to a number of lovesick girls. At the last count he had three fiancées, one putting on a lot of weight recently …
Dolly’s blonde hair was bent towards the vicar’s dyed pate. There was no chance she’d be running this place one day, Ethel thought. Dolly Blake might be pretty and clever, but she wasn’t what the governors looked for in a principal. She was too flash. Too obviously on the make.
If anyone was going to take over from Clare Lees it would be the quiet man sitting at the head of the next table. Ethel studied Evan Thomas curiously – the narrow head, long nose, and large luminous eyes the blue of iris. A very delicate creature, too frail to be sent off to fight. Ethel smiled to herself. Oh, Dolly might think she was smart, but Evan was the one to watch.
Suddenly there was a commotion, a shriek of temper as a glass was thrown across the dining room. Miss Lees stared open-mouthed, Dolly wide-eyed, Mr Grantley poised with his fork halfway to his mouth.
It was Alice. Screaming, standing up on her seat as the girls around her shrank back. They knew there would be trouble, but she seemed immune to everyone. Her face was pink, her fists clenched, a steady wail coming from her open mouth. Ethel got to her feet, roughly caught hold of the child and physically removed her from the dining room.
Her hand fastened over Alice’s mouth as Ethel paused outside the door and listened. At first there was a stunned silence, followed by the angry scrape of a chair being pushed back. As fast as her stocky legs would carry her, Ethel hurried away. Alice had relaxed in her arms and was heavy as Ethel hurried up the narrow back stairs and on into the pharmacy.
Out of breath, she deposited Alice in a chair and put her hands on her hips.
‘What …’ Ethel puffed, ‘… what … was …’ She breathed in deeply. ‘What was all that about?’
Alice was quiet, surprised by the anger coming from the only person who had ever shown her affection.
‘Alice, talk to me!’ Ethel snapped. ‘Miss Lees will be here in a minute and she’ll take a bad view of this. You’re in trouble, my girl. You don’t know how much. Alice, you have to help me to help you – now, what happened?’
‘She took my jewel.’
‘What?’ Ethel said, baffled.
Alice looked up, tears on her black lashes. ‘Annie Court took my jewel. I felt her hand go in my pocket and she stole it.’
‘What jewel? Oh, you mean your stone.’
‘It’s a JEWEL!’ Alice shrieked. Her voice was rising again.
She’s going to have hysterics, Ethel thought frantically. Oh no, not that. Hurriedly, she bent down to the child. ‘Alice, pull yourself together! Miss Lees will be here any minute –’
But it had no effect. Alice had lost all fear of anything. Her cheeks burned red, her fists clenching as she swung her feet against the chair. Ethel was shaken and remembered all too clearly what had happened a few years ago. There had been another child who had been troublesome – prone to tantrums, Miss Lees said. One day the child was transferred to another home. No one knew where. Ethel wasn’t about to have that happen to Alice.
So she grabbed the hard green soap in the sink and worked at it frantically, lathering up some thick white foam. Then, she grabbed Alice by the scruff of the neck and smeared the foam around the child’s mouth. She screamed – just as the door opened and Clare Lees walked in.
Her glance took in Ethel and the red-faced child, who was apparently ill, foaming around the mouth. Anger left her at once. This wasn’t a bad child, but a sick one.
Appalled, she glanced over to Ethel. ‘God, what is it?’
‘She’s having a fit, ma’am,’ Ethel said calmly. ‘If you’ll just let me deal with it … Having people around only excites them more.’
Clare Lees nodded, and backed out. When Ethel finally heard her footsteps die away she got a cloth and wiped Alice’s mouth. The child was silent, her huge dark eyes watching Ethel.
‘Now look what you’ve made me do! Made me lie for you.’ Ethel wiped the beautiful little face. ‘They’ll think you’re ill now, not just a child having a tantrum. You’ll get away with it this time, but not the next.’
Alice’s tongue tasted of soap and her mouth hurt from where the towel had rubbed it. But she knew that Ethel had saved her. Had looked out for her. Noone else had ever done anything like that before. The child put her arms around Ethel’s waist and buried her head emotionally in her apron.
‘Aye, luv, you’ll have to learn to be good,’ Ethel said gently, stroking her hair. ‘It’s a hard life, and it gets harder. Don’t go looking for trouble.’
Alice was crying softly, the sound muffled. She was so highly strung, Ethel thought anxiously, and that was dangerous anywhere. In amongst a family, with supportive parents, it could be managed, but here … Ethel shivered. She didn’t want to see Alice’s spirit knocked out of her. How sad that the child had inherited a volatile character along with her beauty. A mixed blessing, to put it mildly.
‘You must learn to be good,’ Ethel urged, her voice soothing. ‘Be good. Be quiet, sweetheart. Don’t make waves. Please.’
Evan Thomas was walking out of the front gates of Netherlands, completely unaware that he was being watched. His slight tall figure in his dark coat was huddled against the cold November rain, his hand over his mouth. He paused, coughing hoarsely, as he padlocked the gate behind him. The cough had kept him out of the war. Most of the other men in their twenties had been called up, but Evan’s life had changed little. He coughed again, then moved on into the street and out of Clare Lees’ gaze.
As he disappeared from sight, Clare found herself curious, wondering where he was going. Sundays dragged. Her hand idled along the side of her desk, her fingers tapping the wood. Mr Grantley was hard work, she thought; it was a nuisance to have to make him feel so important. But what could she do? She relied on his good feeling to make things smooth for her with the governors.
Clare stepped back to the window. The empty area of gravel drive was dull, unchanging. It had been like this when she was a child here, and it would be like this after she had gone … Her mood darkened with the dull day. Dolly was angling for her job, Clare thought, smiling coldly. What a fool the girl was. But Evan Thomas was another matter.
He wasn’t orphanage fodder. He was educated, his parents both teachers in Wales. So why come to the North of England? Clare had asked him when he applied for the post. ‘It’s good to get away and see other places,’ he had replied. ‘Good to see as much of the world as possible …’ Clare wasn’t sure of that.
Her gaze moved back to the gates. She had been outside, of course. But infrequently. There seemed little reason to go out. The home provided everything she needed. It gave her accommodation and had its own chapel. She could work, eat, sleep and pray – what else was there? As for the shopping, that was done by the kitchen staff on Clare’s orders, never by herself. Even the governors of Netherlands Orphanage came here to see her.
Clare leaned her head against the glass, wondering where Evan Thomas was now. Was he in the town, or visiting friends? Maybe he had a girlfriend. She blushed at the thought, mortified at the feelings it provoked in her. Why should she care? He was nothing to her, and besides, he was thirty years younger than she. He wouldn’t be interested in some spinster with rounded shoulders and no charm.
But she hadn’t always been like this. She had been young, once. The high black gates of the home suddenly looked different to Clare – terrifying and inviting all at once. She ran her tongue over her dry lips. It was raining hard. All the children would be in their dormitories now, learning the religious collect for the day, and most of the staff were relaxing. On an impulse, Clare hurriedly put on her coat and hat, then left her office by her own private exit.
The gates were huge, only yards away, the rain blowing into her face. Her heart speeded up as she hurried towards them, her hands shaking as she took out her key and unlocked the gates. In another instant Clare Lees was outside. Firmly she pulled the gates closed behind her and looked ahead.
The street was empty. The vast Victorian viaduct threw its massive shadow, its arches mouthing at her. Go back, go back. Nervously, Clare moved a couple of feet to her right and then felt her head begin to swim. Breathing rapidly, she unfastened the collar button of her coat and noticed that her palms were sticky.
She could remember the first time she’d come through these gates – wearing a dress which was too long for her and a coat which smelled of stale cooking fat. Only seven years old. Her mother had died and Clare had stayed beside her body for two days and two nights in their shabby rooms in The Bent. A neighbour had finally found them and before Clare knew what was happening she had been taken away and brought to Netherlands Orphanage.
‘Little one, come and sit by me,’ her mother had said when she was so ill, lying in a poor cot of a bed beside a damp wall, with a cheap print of a sailing boat on it. The sounds of the pub below came loudly up through the bare floorboards. Her mother’s face was gaunt, the eyes flat. A stupid face in reality, but the hands had been kind. They had held on to Clare and pulled the thin blanket over both of them. ‘Little one, one day we’ll get out of here, and go away. Go off to somewhere sunny. We’ll have a garden, and servants … I love you. I love you.’
Clare stopped, her mouth half open, the shocking memory a fist in her heart. The street was still empty, nothing familiar in it, nothing she remembered from over forty years ago. I could run away, she thought, then remembered that she was a grown woman. Besides, she had nowhere else to go. Her gaze lingered hopelessly on the street ahead of her. She studied the dark viaduct; watched the rain making the cobbles shine.
They had buried her mother in the same graveyard as her father and that was that. The end of her family. The end of her life outside. Slowly Clare tipped back her head and felt the rain on her face. Netherlands had become her prison, she knew that. She was serving a sentence which would only end at her retirement, and even then she would stay on. And die there.
The cold rain fell against her eyelids and ran over her cheeks. Memory and longing beat to the rhythm of her heart.
Then, slowly, she turned and walked back through the gates, locking them after her.
Years passed and no one came for Alice Rimmer. No one sent letters or called, no one discovered a relative or remembered a friend of the Rimmer family. The foundling remained where she had been placed – behind the high walls of Netherlands. Forgotten.
Ethel never got over the fact that Alice could have been adopted. But it was more than her job was worth to say anything. Better to hold her tongue and keep an eye on the child and look out for her as best she could. But she never stopped wondering who Alice was, or where she had come from. And she never stopped hoping that she would find out one day.
‘I’ve always said it and I’ll say it again – that child is well bred,’ Ethel told Gilbert firmly, ‘and she’s growing up fast. Ten this Friday.’ She paused, then leaned on the pile of ironing in front of her. ‘I was thinking, Gilbert …’
He glanced up at the wheedling tone, his broad face suspicious.
‘Oh aye. Your thinking usually costs me money, or sleep.’
Ethel smiled winningly. ‘I was wondering – would you mind if I brought Alice home for her birthday?’
‘No, London Zoo,’ Ethel replied archly. ‘Of course here. She’s hardly ever been out of that home – none of the children has. It’s like a world of its own.’ Ethel paused, wondering how to put it best. ‘Alice needs to think she has some family.’
Gilbert’s forehead creased into frown lines. He had given up the removals now, and was making wooden toys in the shed to keep himself busy – and to make a bit of money. Tommy Field’s market sold them – well, now and again.
‘Look, luv, we have our own family. Alice Rimmer isn’t our responsibility.’
‘And that,’ Ethel snapped back, ‘is probably what her mother once said!’
He sighed, knowing that Ethel had already made her mind up.
‘But what about Miss Lees?’ he continued gamely. ‘She doesn’t like any of the kids to get out and about – and she’s not one for favouritism, you’ve said so often enough. Besides, is she really likely to agree to a child – especially Alice Rimmer – coming here for a birthday treat?’
Ethel frowned. ‘Who said she had to know it was a birthday treat? Look, Gilbert, that child needs a change, and I intend to give her one – and Clare Lees isn’t going to stop me. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.’
Which there was. A little white lying on Ethel’s part and she convinced Clare Lees that Alice needed a way to run off her ‘excess energy’. She wouldn’t mind taking her out and about, now and then. After all, Ethel said reasonably, it would stop Alice stirring up the other children, wouldn’t it?
So the following Friday Gilbert found himself sitting opposite a little girl in a plain print dress, her black hair in plaits, her eyes huge and wary. Obviously nervous, Alice was sitting with her hands on her lap, terrified of the old man watching her. Gilbert was also terrified. What the hell was he supposed to say to a child?
Paralysed and silent they both looked up relieved when, a moment later, Ethel walked in with a cake.
‘It’s a birthday cake, for you, Alice.’
‘For me?’ The child replied, her voice low. No one had celebrated her birthday before. In fact, only Ethel had ever mentioned it. But now here she was, out of Netherlands, with a cake! It was too good to be true.
Beaming, Ethel put the cake in front of Alice, then lit the ten candles on the top. As soon as she saw the flames, Alice reared back in her seat, alarmed.
‘No, luv, it’s all right.’ Ethel laughed. ‘It’s a candle for every year you’ve been born. Ten candles, ten years.’
Alice stared into the flames, each of them reproduced in the dark pupils of her eyes.
‘Blow them out and wish,’ Ethel urged her.
Gilbert was watching the little girl and then glanced at his wife. A cake of all things! I wonder how much that cost. They hardly ever had cake these days, what with money being so bloody tight.
Urged on by Ethel, Alice leaned towards the cake, took in a huge breath, and blew. The candles went out all together, thin trickles of smoke curling up from the spent wicks. She smiled, then clapped her hands together and giggled. The sound was so infectious that Gilbert found himself laughing too.
Excited, Alice leaped to her feet. ‘Oh, thank you, thank you!’ she said, hugging Ethel tightly. ‘It’s the best thing that ever happened to me.’
She chatted on and on after that, all shyness gone. Gilbert put down his paper. Fascinated, he listened to the stories of the home and tut-tutted where he thought it was appropriate. Knowing that she had an audience, Alice was vibrant, her voice rising and falling, her eyes brilliant, her hands waving in the air as she talked.
On the sidelines, Ethel watched, amused. Yet even she was surprised when Gilbert went out for a moment and then came back from the shed with some of the wooden toys he had made.
Diffidently, he showed them to Alice.
‘I … I made these,’ he said, pushing a toy horse and a camel across the table towards the little girl.
‘You made them?’ she asked, astonished.
Gilbert nodded, puffed up with pride. Carefully he lit his pipe and sat down in his battered easy chair.
‘I learned to carve from my father. He could make anything.’
Alice’s eyes were fixed on the toys.
‘Go on, you can touch them,’ Gilbert said.
Ethel raised her eyebrows. Well, she thought, this was a turn up. Her husband was normally so possessive of his carvings. Things were going better than she would have dared to hope.
Slowly Alice picked up the camel and turned it over in her hands. Then she laughed and picked up the horse. In another moment she was racing them along the table, Gilbert watching her, Alice hooting with laughter. She felt secure, happy in this little house, and was so giddy with excitement that she lost her grip on the horse and it fell over the edge of the table.
As it landed heavily at Gilbert’s feet, its head snapped off.
Alice froze in her seat, watching as he bent down. Ethel too was holding her breath. Carefully Gilbert fingered the broken toy, then glanced over to the child. For an instant he was enraged, but when he saw tears running down Alice’s face he faltered.
‘It were badly carved,’ he said, coughing. ‘It weren’t your fault, luv.’
But she knew it was. Knew he was lying to be kind to her. She had broken the toy and ruined everything. They wouldn’t ask her to their house again. No one wanted a stupid clumsy girl around. No one ever wanted her around for long.
Brushing away her tears, Alice stammered, ‘Sorry, I’m sorry –’
‘Like I say, it weren’t well made,’ Gilbert persisted manfully.
Mortified, Alice got to her feet and turned to Ethel. ‘I should go back now –’
‘You don’t have to,’ Ethel said, her heart shifting. Oh, bugger the bloody toy! Why did that have to happen? ‘Stay a while longer, Alice.’
She shook her head. ‘No, I should really go back.’ She turned to Gilbert. ‘I’m so sorry about the horse, Mr Cummings … really sorry.’ Then she looked back at Ethel. ‘Thank you for my cake. It was the best birthday I’ve ever had.’
Alice cried herself to sleep that night, her head under the blankets so that the others girls wouldn’t hear her. They would have gloated, she knew. They had all been so jealous that Alice had been allowed out. Why her? they’d asked. It must be because she was so pretty. Matron’s favourite.
Some of them would have liked to bully Alice, but there was something about her which stopped them. She was so confident, not like the rest of them. It did no good telling her that she was an orphan like everyone else; Alice would simply shrug her shoulders and walk off. She was special, she told them; she was only at the home temporarily. Her family were coming back for her, she said. Her rich family.
They laughed at her, but there was something about Alice Rimmer which made them wonder. She didn’t have the scarecrow looks of the rest of them and could stand up for herself – maybe her people would come back for her. After all, she had hinted at coming from an important family. Her mother, she said, was famous.
But the fantasy Alice had created over the years she had been at Netherlands felt sour that night. She kept her head under the pillow, tears exhausted. The matron had always cared about her, given her little treats and protected her – but she wouldn’t any longer. She would hate her now, now she had broken the horse …
Alice turned over onto her back. The sounds of the other girls’ breathing told her they were asleep as she crept over to the window and looked out through the wide bars. From where the dormitory was situated on the third floor, she could see the other wing of the home, the boys’ wing. Totally separated from the girls’ wing, the school sandwiched between the two, it could have been in another county. The children never mixed, went to church at different times and ate at different times. Segregated, all contact forbidden. Two independent entities, within sight, but never in touch.
Alice sighed. Far away she could just make out some lights on the Heights. She wanted to be out there. Longingly Alice remembered what she had seen that day: the streets, the shops, the people. Ethel had walked her across town, buses passing by them intermittently. She had even called into a greengrocer’s on the way home, holding tightly on to Alice’s hand. Mesmerised, Alice had looked at the ‘Epicure’ tins on the shelves and the mean-looking bacon slicer on the counter.
Beside her, a middle-aged woman in a fur wrap had waited patiently, her hat topped with feathers. Alice had stared at the woman. She was beautiful. Like her mother would be. She’d studied the woman, observing the dark brown hair, the strong attractive features, and the confident voice. Her mother was definitely just like that, Alice had thought, looking longingly after the woman as she left. Her mother was out there, somewhere. In these streets. She was alive. In fact, they might have passed her. She might even have been that woman …
Sighing at the memory, Alice continued to stare out of the window. She had been out of the home and she had seen the world. But now she was back in disgrace. Mrs Cummings wouldn’t invite her again. She would have to wait for years and years to escape. Until she was fourteen, when most of the Netherlands girls left to go out to work in service. Four whole years. Chilled, Alice shivered and slid back under the sheets, pulling her coat over her. Fighting tears, she tucked her cold hands into the pockets to warm them and then stiffened.
In the darkness her hand closed over a strange shape. A smooth, wooden shape. Carved in the image of a camel.
Clare Lees was going to put a stop to all this nonsense before it got out of hand. It was Ethel Cummings’s fault indirectly. You shouldn’t favour one child above the others. She should never have allowed it, but it had seemed a good idea at the time. God knows, Alice Rimmer needed to work off some of her excess energy. Stiffly Clare Lees rose to her feet, her neck aching. As though the child wasn’t enough of a handful already – and now this.
‘Come in!’ she barked, Alice walking into the gloomy office slowly. ‘Sit down.’
She did so, her eyes fixed on the principal.
‘Alice, I’ve been hearing some very silly things. Apparently you’ve been telling the other girls that your mother is coming back for you. She isn’t.’ It was better to be blunt, Clare Lees thought. No point letting the child live in a fool’s paradise.
‘She is,’ Alice said defiantly.
Clare Lees was unnerved by the vehemence of the girl’s retort.
‘Now look here,’ she said coldly, ‘I’m in charge of Netherlands, and what I say goes. You have always been a handful, Alice Rimmer, but I had thought lately that you were settling down. It appears that I was wrong.’
Alice was listening, her breathing fast.
‘You were abandoned here, and you have been cared for by Netherlands, due to the charity of others. You owe this home a debt of gratitude. Delusions of grandeur will not work here.’ Her eyes fixed on the girl, who still looked defiant. Clare’s dislike flared like a newly lit torch. ‘You are a nobody, Alice, a foundling. You have no family. No one’s coming back for you. They left you. They didn’t want you.’
Alice took in her breath, but said nothing.
‘When you leave here you’ll have to work and make your own way in this world. It is better,’ Clare Lees paused for effect, ‘to learn your place now. Life can be very hard, Alice. No one likes an upstart.’
Alice didn’t know what an upstart was, but she knew it was bad.
‘Remember – I can make your life here very difficult, if I choose to,’ Clare went on. ‘Extra duties, extra work – they could soon break your spirit and make you toe the line. But I’m giving you a chance. Mend your ways – and your manner – and you and I could still get on.’
Alice looked down. A triumphant Clare Lees read the action as submission and thought she had the upper hand.
‘Stop these fantasies. Stop talking to the other girls about your dream world. Stop pretending you’re better than everyone else.’ She walked over to Alice and looked down at her. ‘I expect you to change. Now. I want a calm, quiet, obedient girl. A girl who knows her place. Do I make myself clear? Well, do I?’
That night, Alice Rimmer ran away.
Alice had no idea where she was going, only that she had to get out of the home. She crept downstairs after everyone was in bed, stole out of the back entrance, crossed the yard, and climbed over the locked gates. No one saw her. When she jumped down on the other side she felt a rush of excitement. There was no one about, but then a late bus passed by, its wheels throwing up rain from the gutter.
If she was caught there would be hell to pay. She knew that. But somehow Alice didn’t care. What right had old Ma Lees to tell her that she was a no one? How did she know? You are a nobody. No one’s coming back for you … The words drummed into her head. A nobody. No one’s child … It wasn’t true! Alice thought helplessly, walking along the dark pavement and keeping to the shadow of the wall. She had had a mother and a father, everyone did. They must be alive somewhere. Somewhere outside. Where she now was.
But where could she begin looking? She imagined old Ma Lees’ face when she presented her parents to her; when she said, ‘Look, this is my father and this is my mother.’ Oh, she wouldn’t be so spiteful then, Alice thought. Not when she was a somebody, someone’s child, not a foundling to be pushed around.
The rain came down chill with the wind and made Alice shudder. The road which had looked so inviting was suddenly menacing, unfamiliar. A stout woman passed, looked at her curiously and then moved on. Alice paused momentarily outside a pub. The lights were on, the sound of raucous laughter drifting out into the dismal street. A song twanged haphazardly from an out-of-tune piano. Alice pressed her face to the etched glass. Inside she could just make out the backs of the customers, and smell the beer and cheap cigarette smoke. Then someone coughed, and a man staggered out of the door, pushing into her as he made his unsteady way home.
Her parents wouldn’t go to a place like this, Alice thought. They wouldn’t be smoking and drinking in some Salford backstreet pub.
She turned, startled by the man who had doubled back and was watching her, weaving unsteadily on his feet.
‘Wot you staring at?’
‘Nothing,’ Alice said sullenly, her fear making her belligerent. ‘What are you staring at?’
He leaned towards her, sour-breathed. ‘You nowt but a kid, wot you doing out so late? Waiting for yer father?’
‘My father isn’t in there!’ Alice said heatedly. ‘He’s … rich. He doesn’t come to places like this.’
Unexpectedly the man laughed. ‘Oh, rich, is he? So why are you hanging about Salford at this time of night? You some little princess in disguise, come slumming?’
Biting her lip to control her fear and indignation, Alice stood up to him. ‘It’s nothing to do with you –’
‘I bet he’s just another drunk, propping up the bar in there,’ the man said, his voice slurred. ‘Yer mam sent you to call him home before he spends the rent money?’
‘He’s not like that!’ Alice said heatedly, walking away and then turning. ‘My father’s important and my mother’s well known. A beauty.’
‘Yeah, and I’m Rudolph Valentino,’ the drunk sneered, pulling a half-bottle out of his greasy coat and taking a swig. ‘And the more I drink, the more I believe it.’
Alice hurried off, moving under the viaduct and beginning to mount the steep street. If she was honest, she wanted to double back, but was afraid to meet up with the man again, so she kept walking ahead. Soon she was drenched, her hair dripping down her back, her skin chalk white. Wrapping her arms around herself she hurried on. She then realised that she was lost. The streets meant nothing to her, she had no idea of where she was, and there was nothing familiar in sight. The outings she had had with Ethel had been in daytime and Salford hadn’t seemed so grim then, but under the dim gaslamps the streets looked sour, the alleys gloomy. Disembodied voices and shouts came from behind doors and drawn blinds, the rain drumming on the cheap tin roofs of outside lavatories. Alice was afraid suddenly, stopping and looking round. Where was she going? Did she really think she was going to find her parents this way? When she didn’t know who they were, where they were, or what they looked like?
She had acted like a fool, Alice thought. Here she was out in the cold, lost, and there was no one to help her. No one was even looking for her. Scared, she dug her nails into her palms to stop herself crying and turned, trying to see the viaduct, the only landmark she remembered. But all she could see was a man, the drunk, a way off, walking towards her and, startled, Alice began to run.
It was him! she thought. He would catch her and then what? Her feet pounded on the pavement and then she saw a cobbled ginnel and dived in, catching her breath.
At once, a hand descended on her shoulder.
‘Hey, miss, it’s all right,’ the policeman said pleasantly. ‘What are you doing out and about this time of night?’
Relief was quickly followed by a sense of failure. Her big adventure was a sham. She was just a stupid, lost kid.
‘I … was walking.’
‘Around where?’ he repeated, leaning down towards her, his moustached face kind. ‘I think I should get you home, don’t you?’
‘I don’t have a home.’
He blinked. ‘Come on now, there’s no argument that bad that can’t be settled over a pot of tea. Your parents will be worried about you, lass.’
No they won’t, Alice thought hopelessly. ‘I don’t have a real home. I’m at Netherlands.’
‘Ah,’ he said simply, taking her hand. ‘Well, I think perhaps it’s time you were back, little one.’
She wanted to be grown up, but instead Alice held gratefully onto his hand and walked back to Netherlands with him in silence.
Ethel would say afterwards that it was the turning point. When Alice was brought back to the home that night she was cowed and defeated. You could see that all the fight had gone out of her, Ethel told Gilbert. It was hardly worth while Clare Lees punishing her; she didn’t seem to care any more. The petty duties Alice was given she completed without complaint, without resistance. She wouldn’t even talk about where she had gone that night. Or why.
‘Are you all right, sweetheart?’ Ethel asked her a few days later.
Alice nodded. ‘I’m fine.’
Compliance was more worrying than an outburst, thought Ethel.
‘No more running away now, Alice, promise me. It did no good, no good at all.’ She paused to see what effect her words were having, but the girl’s face was bland. What is she thinking? Ethel wondered. Or is she plotting something?
The truth was that Clare Lees’ words had cut Alice to the bone and forced a change in her. It was one thing to be put in a home, quite another for someone to spell out what you already knew. That you weren’t wanted. Alice’s hatred for the principal was absolute, although she wouldn’t admit it to anyone. She would keep her own counsel, that was the only way to survive at Netherlands. But her loathing for Clare Lees burned with such force that she wondered if it shimmered around her like a heat haze.
Clare Lees had crushed her dream. The one thing which Alice had clung to – the hope that her parents, in particular her mother, might come back for her – had been snatched away. Some humpbacked spinster had told her she was a no one and that she never would be.
Well, she would show her! Alice thought. She would show Clare Lees what she was made of. One day she would get out of the home and really find her family. They would explain that it had all been a mistake and welcome her back. They would be rich and she would come back in furs and riding in a new motorcar. She would gloat over Clare Lees and pay her back for every single cruel word.
That was the night that Alice Rimmer grew up.
Evan Thomas paused under the viaduct and lit a cigarette, inhaling the smoke and then tossing the match into the gutter. The sun was shining, which pleased him, and he hummed under his breath as he walked along. Oh yes, Evan thought, life was really quite good.
He had a new girlfriend and unless he was very much mistaken, he was impressing Clare Lees even more than usual. Evan sniffed the air and pretended that he was back in Wales. The daydream lasted for as long as it took a rag-and-bone man to ride by, his horse depositing a heap of foul-smelling dung on the roadside.
Pulling an expression of disgust, Evan moved off. Oh yes, Clare Lees was getting to need him more and more. If he played his cards right she might consider early retirement. After all, the woman must be over sixty. He would be kind to her, let her retire and teach a little now and then. There was no reason to be unpleasant; after all, she had made it all possible for him.
He liked to imagine how popular he would be. Liked to think of how everyone would love him after the old bag had gone … Evan sighed. He would have to make changes, bring the place into the present, get himself noticed. The governors seemed to like him well enough – better than that ridiculous Dolly Blake.
Evan thought about pretty, ambitious Dolly and her bullish boyfriend, Andy. Not many brains in poor Andy. Just brawn. He smiled. Dolly was such a fool; it had all been so easy. She had fallen for his line as soon as he had spun it her way. And she had kept falling.
She was waiting by the park gates now, her blonde head shining in the sunlight, her face a mixture of pouting prettiness and hard-nosed guile.
‘Evan,’ she said softly, her lips pressing briefly against his.
‘Hey now, we have to be careful in public –’
She pinched his arm. It hurt. ‘Why’s that, Evan?’
‘You’re the one with the fiancé,’ he replied smoothly, leading her into the park and away from prying eyes. Andy might be dumb, but he was big enough to flatten Evan.
‘Oh, Evan,’ she said, stopping and pulling him towards some bushes, ‘I’ve been thinking about you since Thursday. Do you really love me?’
He cupped her breasts in his hands and nuzzled against her neck ‘Now that’s a silly question, girl. You know how I feel about you.’
Dolly wasn’t totally satisfied with the answer and pulled herself – and her breasts – away from him.
‘Don’t get all clever with me, Evan!’ she snapped. ‘I want a proper answer.’
Well what was the proper answer? Evan thought. I’m using you, my dear. Just to get you off the scent whilst I make sure I get the upper hand at Netherlands. He knew the type Dolly Blake was: so clever she would cut herself. She thought that she was stringing Evan along, whilst he knew that he was manipulating her. Evan touched her cheek, trying to cheer her up at he looked at her. Dolly thought that by being Evan Thomas’s girlfriend she could protect her own interests. He would either help her to get where she wanted, or she would get it by default. And bugger poor Andy. If Evan Thomas was going to the top – she was going with him.
Or so she thought.
‘Oh, come on, sweetheart,’ Evan said, pulling her to him. ‘There’s no one like you.’
‘I dare say there isn’t,’ she retorted, her face flushed. ‘If you’re playing fast and loose with me, Evan, you’ll live to regret it.’
He stood back from her, his expression injured.
At once, she was contrite. ‘Oh, Evan, I’m sorry, I just care about you so much.’ She took his hand and kissed it. ‘I don’t mean to say the things I do; I just want us to be together.’
‘What about Andy?’ Evan said, as though he thought of the other man as a rival.
‘What about him?’ Dolly replied. ‘I’d drop him like that,’ she clicked her fingers, ‘if you asked me to marry you.’
Jesus, Evan thought, no bloody way! He wanted Dolly safe with her dollop of a fiancé. In fact, it would suit him best if she married Andy. That way he could never get caught. Marry Dolly Blake! Was she crazy?
‘You know how I feel about you,’ Evan replied, pressing her hand to his cheek, ‘but I can’t marry until I’ve proved myself, got my career on track.’ He looked into her eyes wistfully. ‘You do see that, don’t you? I’m an ambitious man. Dolly. It wouldn’t be fair.’
Her brain took the words and sifted them like lump flour. In the end the meaning was unpalatable. Not that she would let Evan see it. So he thought he was taking her for a ride, did he? Well, time would tell.
Gently she laid her head on his shoulder and sighed.
‘I understand, luv,’ she said, letting her hand move inside his jacket and touch his chest. ‘Honestly I do.’
When Dolly came back to Netherlands that evening she was preoccupied, ready for a fight with anyone who crossed her path. Using the side door, she let herself into the home and paused in the corridor. It smelled of chalk and a less pleasant urine odour coming from the toilets nearby.
Sniffing, she walked into the back room beyond and snapped at an old bald man sitting smoking a pipe.
He looked up, eyes rheumy. ‘Aye?’
‘The toilet smells.’
‘What d’you expect? It’s a toilet, not a bleeding perfume factory,’ he replied, sucking on his pipe and turning away.
Irritated, Dolly stood in front of him. ‘They need some more disinfectant –’
‘Aye, stop yer bleating! There’s many houses round ’ere that don’t have a lavvie – like yers, I’ll be bound.’
‘Now, you just –’
Irritated, Mr Baldwin stood up and waved his pipe at her. ‘I do what I can ’ere. The wages are bloody awful for what I have to deal with. As for the lavvies – they’ll be swilled out again in the morning.’
Impatiently he flicked his hand to shoo her away. Will Baldwin had been at Netherlands longer than anyone. He could remember being the caretaker when Clare Lees was a child, he didn’t need some cheap tart like Dolly Blake telling him what to do.
‘I’ve told you, Miss Blake, it’ll be done again in morning.’
‘I have –’
‘Oh, go off and pick a fight with someone else!’ Will replied, adding slyly, ‘You want to stay away from Welshmen and stick with yer own sort. You’d be better-tempered if you did.’
Dolly’s face flushed as she stood, tongue-tied, for a moment and then flounced out.
As she made her way back down the corridor she was listening for any sound, any child on whom she could vent her spleen. The boys’ section was silent, behind the locked doors, and in front of her there stretched the long gloomy corridor which led to the girls’ part of the home. It was empty, dimly lit by spluttering gaslight.
Her shoes tapped on the shiny floor as Dolly hurried along. She thought at one point that she heard something, but when she paused there was only silence. On she paced, seething, and then rounded the bend to find Alice walking towards her.
‘What are you doing here at this time of night?’ Dolly snapped.
Alice paused. She was carrying a tray with a cover over it.
‘I’ve come from the sanatorium,’ she said quietly, looking into Dolly’s flushed face.
‘At this time? I doubt it.’ Dolly pulled the cover off the tray Alice was carrying. ‘What’s this?’
‘Matron asked me to take it back to the kitchen –’
‘I didn’t ask what you were told to do with it, I asked what it was.’
‘Hilly Barker’s supper.’
Dolly paused to consider. Hilly Barker had been ill for some time, coughing and periodically feverish. She had been in and out of the sanatorium for the four years she had been at Netherlands. And she was getting worse. Not to worry, the doctor had assured Clare Lees, it’s not contagious. It was just that Hilly was getting weaker by the day.
Alice nodded, keeping her head down.
Dolly stared at her, taking in the dark good looks that had intensified since Alice had turned ten. She would be stunning one day, Dolly realised, her temper increasing at the thought.
‘It’s a waste of good food,’ Dolly went on, staring at the unappetising meal. ‘She should have eaten it. There are children starving abroad.’
‘Hilly tried, but she’s no appetite –’
‘Since when have you been a doctor?’ Dolly bellowed. ‘You’re altogether too big for your boots, Alice Rimmer. We had trouble with you before, didn’t we? I thought you’d learned your lesson.’
Alice said nothing, just waited. The tirade would pass in time. Dolly Blake was peevish, but her viciousness was always short-lived.
‘Sorry, Miss Blake.’
‘You should be sorry,’ Dolly went on, the corridor echoing her words. ‘Miss Lees doesn’t want any more trouble from you, Alice Rimmer, or you’ll be sent away.’
Staying silent, Alice stood with her head bowed. She knew that Dolly had no power to send her away, but she was going to be careful, just in case. The only people she cared about were at Netherlands – Ethel and Hilly. She didn’t want to lose what little she had. So she bit her tongue, as she had learned to do.
Obviously getting bored with her attack, Dolly sighed. ‘How is Hilly?’ she asked, toying with the cuffs of her dress.
She glanced back at Alice. God, the girl was getting tall. ‘Why you?’
‘Pardon, Miss Blake?’
‘Why are you looking after Hilly Barker?’
‘Matron asked me to,’ Alice replied, her voice low.
‘Aren’t you worried that Hilly might have something contagious?’ Dolly asked meanly.
Dolly snorted and tossed her blonde head. ‘She could have smallpox for all we know.’ She leaned towards Alice and looked into the spectacular dark eyes. ‘If Hilly Barker did have smallpox you could catch it. It blinds you and leave pockmarks all over your face. Makes you ugly. Really ugly.’ She studied the girl’s perfect skin and felt a sudden urge to slap her. Then, just as soon at the feeling had come, it passed.
Dolly waved Alice aside. ‘Go on, get on with whatever to have to do,’ she said, capriciously. ‘Go on!’
As Alice hurried away, Dolly stood for a long time looking after her. But she didn’t even see the girl any more; she was thinking about Evan Thomas and Clare Lees, and wondering how she could make her future secure. Deep in thought, Dolly stared at the linoleum, the colour of treacle. She shivered suddenly and rubbed her arms with her hands. What she had to do was to get closer to Clare Lees. She had to become the principal’s confidante. Her ally.
She looked around. The walls were bare, without paintings or colour. Netherlands was a lot better than some of the other homes, Dolly knew, but it was hardly a place to choose to grow up in. No fires here, no little touches of home. No soft beds … Dolly thought of Evan again, and then of Andy.
Smiling, she touched her lips with the tips of her fingers. Oh, she would sort it out. Andy was a handsome man, not too bright, but good in bed. She smiled slyly. As for Evan Thomas, well, he would have to be taught a lesson, wouldn’t he? A little demonstration to show him that he wasn’t dealing with a common tart.
Calmer now, Dolly walked on. Ahead of her she could see the heavy door of the principal’s room, ‘Miss Clare Lees’ inscribed in gold lettering. Dolly stopped, glanced round, and then touched the letters, imagining it reading ‘Miss Dora Blake’. Or ‘Mrs Andrew Fellows’. Or ‘Mrs Evan Thomas’ … Sighing, Dolly let her fingers fall away from the wood.
Then she turned away and retraced her steps – never realising that she was watched by a silent Alice Rimmer at the turn of the stairs.
‘Hilly?’ Alice whispered.
The girl turned over in her bed and then sat up, surprised.
‘Alice, what are you doing here?’
‘I came back,’ Alice said, pulling the edge of the blanket around her shoulders.
‘Where have you been?’
‘Just walking round the streets.’
‘But if they catch you –’
‘They won’t,’ Alice said certainly. ‘It’s four in the morning. No one’s about. How are you feeling?’
‘Not too bad,’ Hilly replied, leaning back against the pillow, her voice low so as not to waken the girl in the next bed. ‘I felt stronger today.’
‘You look better,’ Alice lied, touching her friend’s forehead. ‘Matron said you might go out for a walk tomorrow.’
‘Alice, you shouldn’t be here,’ Hilly replied, her fine, ash-blonde hair lank against her pale face. ‘You’ll get into trouble.’
‘No, I won’t,’ Alice reassured her. Smiling she held up a key. ‘See this? It’s the sanatorium key.’
‘Where did you get that?’ Hilly asked, horror-struck. She knew Alice only too well, knew how the placid exterior hid a wilful streak. They had been friends for years, both of them now fourteen. Only Alice looked fourteen – and Hilly looked like a sick child.
Without Alice, Hilly would have given up a long time ago. The home was dispiriting, gloomy. She had no family and nothing to look forward to – until the day that Alice had arrived at her bedside with her dinner. From then on, things had changed. Soon Hilly was eager to see her and hear the gossip. Alice Rimmer might seem quiet to everyone else, but she was a wicked talker and missed nothing.
It was through Alice that the sickly girl lived vicariously. And it was through Alice that Hilly heard about Evan Thomas and Dolly Blake and Clare Lees. Without her, Hilly would have known little of the tiny world of the home, but Alice told her everything – a spy, reporting back all her trivial espionage.
At first Hilly had spent a third of her time in the home, but as she grew weaker she became more tied to the sanatorium. Ethel had always been kind, but it was Alice who provided the entertainment. Before long, Hilly came to know Alice as no one else did.
It was in Hilly that Alice had confided about Gilbert Cummings’s broken horse and what Clare Lees had said about no one wanting her. It was also Hilly who’d heard about Alice’s ambitions – and fantasies. It seemed a small price to pay, Hilly had thought, as she’d listened to Alice talking about her phantom mother. She knew that it was a fantasy, but what did that matter? Alice was the only person who had chosen to spend time with her. Everyone else kept away, forgot her.
And as the years passed, and Hilly took up permanent residence in the sanatorium, Alice remained constant. She fussed her and petted her as though she was her child, Hilly thought, moved by the frequent kindnesses. Yet there was also a hidden recklessness about Alice which terrified her. Alice might pretend to others that she was quiet and subdued, but Hilly wasn’t fooled. Alice had sneaked out of the home several times, just to walk around the town. Or so she said.
But one night she had told Hilly the real reason.
‘I think I’ll see her.’
‘Who?’ Hilly had asked, bemused.
‘My mother,’ Alice had answered, surprised that she hadn’t already guessed. ‘One day I’ll bump into her, you’ll see.’
Hilly had felt pity well up in her. Neither of them had parents, or even just mothers. That was reality. She could accept it so why couldn’t Alice?
‘Your mother might be dead, you know.’
Alice had looked at her and shook her head firmly. ‘No, she’s alive.’
‘How do you know?’
‘Because I do!’ Alice had snapped angrily. ‘I know she’s alive, Hilly. I feel it.’
‘Did anyone ever tell you that?’
Hilly’s voice had been quiet. ‘So you don’t know for sure?’
‘I know,’ Alice had repeated. ‘I think Miss Lees knows something too.’
‘Why d’you think that?’
‘What kind of hunch?’
‘I don’t know, Hilly! It’s just something I’ve always believed. And I’ll prove it in the end.’
Sighing, Hilly had tapped the back of Alice’s hand. ‘Don’t go out again, please. If they find out –’
‘No one will find out,’ Alice had replied patiently. ‘I know what I’m doing.’
And she seemed to, because she was never caught. Alice’s nocturnal wanderings didn’t uncover her mother, but they bred in her some wildness of spirit. Another child would have been terrified, but Alice was past that. She was quick, kept to the shadows, watching people, events, soaking up the outside world the only way she could. Then, as she grew older, Alice stopped fantasising and began to talk about other ways of finding out about her past.
Now Alice dropped her voice to a whisper as she leaned towards Hilly. ‘They have personal files in the office.’
‘What!’ Hilly said, startled.
Alice motioned her to be quiet. ‘I said, they have files on all of us here. On each child. They’re in the principal’s office. And I want to see mine.’
Hilly sat up in bed, alarmed. ‘Don’t do it, Alice! Please, if you’re caught, they’ll send you away.’ Hilly looked close to tears. ‘I couldn’t go on if you weren’t here.’
Alice shook her head, her voice barely more than a whisper. ‘No one will find out. I’ve got hold of the key.’
‘All I have to do is to look in the files. Then I’ll lock them up again and that’s it. Trust me, Hilly, no one will find out.’
‘Yes!’ Alice said emphatically. ‘I have to know who I am, and where I come from. And I will.’ She slid a key out of her pocket and showed it to Hilly. ‘This is it. This is what will get me in. Then when I look at the files, I’ll know.’
Rising wearily to her feet, Ethel yawned and stretched her arms over her head. God, she was tired. The work didn’t get any easier. And as for working nights, that was a lark and no mistake. Still, with Gilbert unemployed she had to take what opportunities there were. She walked to the mirror and rearranged her white cap. It had seen better days, but then so had she.
They were all getting on – Clare Lees ageing rapidly, and as for that toe rag Evan Thomas … Ethel snorted under her breath. He was still sniffing around Miss Lees, still sucking up to her, although by now he must be wondering when she was going to retire. Dolly Blake was hanging on too. Ethel laughed to herself. Some time back, Dolly had got exasperated with Evan and issued an ultimatum: marry me, or it’s over and I’ll marry Andy. Good luck, he had replied, I hope you’ll both be very happy. It wasn’t what Dolly had expected and so she was forced to do some nifty back-pedalling. She hadn’t really meant it, she explained, she just wanted him to tell her where she stood.
Up to her knees in horse muck, Ethel thought when she heard about it. But whatever she said, it did no good. Dolly might have started off thinking that she would use Evan to further her ambitions, but now she was in love with him. The more he refused to make a commitment, the more she clung on, the eternal fiancé, Andy, always in the background – with his other girlfriends to keep him company. What the hell Dolly was playing at Ethel couldn’t imagine, but Dolly Blake was not going to let go of Evan Thomas. Ever. God makes them and the Devil pairs them, and that’s a fact, Ethel thought.
If her guess was right, though, the ambitions of both Dolly and Evan were no nearer to being fulfilled. Still active, Clare Lees wasn’t going anywhere just yet …
Ethel yawned again and walked over to the door, looking down the corridor.
All was quiet, but then what did she expect? Old Baldwin was flaked out in his bunk in the basement and who else would be walking about at this time? It seemed daft to have her on night duty; the boys were all in bed in the other wing and she had looked in on the girls only half an hour ago. Only Alice had been awake.
But then Alice was always watchful. Ethel sighed. The little girl who had come to the home had certainly grown up. She was fourteen now and comely, very comely. Before long she would have to find work – all the girls did. But what kind of work would Alice find? Not factory work, or service. No, Ethel thought, there were plans for Alice.
Not that the girl knew about them. But Clare Lees had confided in Ethel not so long since; said she had hoped that Alice would teach at the home. She was bright, she said, very quick. It would be a waste to send her out to do menial work. Miss Lees had gone on to say that she wanted to train her, even hinted that she might like to see Alice Rimmer take over as principal in due course. That would be a turn-up, Ethel thought. Alice, of all people. Didn’t Miss Lees know how much the girl hated Netherlands? Didn’t she realise how much Alice hated her?
Apparently not, Ethel thought, opening a window and breathing in the cool summer air. It had been an unseasonably stuffy day and now the temperature was chill. Her eyes regarded the bare courtyard. Someone should have planted trees and bushes there long enough since. It would have made the place more cosy, more welcoming.
A sudden noise made her pause. Ethel turned and looked upwards at the ceiling above her. It sounded like soft footsteps overhead. Was Clare Lees up and working at this hour? It wasn’t likely; she kept to regular hours. So who was it?
Picking up a full bottle of linctus as a make-do weapon, Ethel moved into the corridor. The dull gaslight threw long shadows, the far end in darkness. Slowly she moved towards the stairs and walked up them, one by one. It couldn’t be a burglar – there was nothing to steal.
At the door of the principal’s office Ethel paused and looked in. At first she could only made out the shape of a person and then, as her eyes adjusted to the lack of light, she recognised her.
The girl spun round, startled.
‘Alice, what are you doing?’
She faltered. ‘I … I … heard a noise.’
‘At this time of night? You should be in bed,’ Ethel replied, walking in and staring at the girl. Her concern turned to suspicion suddenly. ‘What are you doing in here?’
Ethel’s glance moved to the open drawer. ‘Alice! How could you?’ she snapped, genuinely shocked. ‘What are you looking for?’
‘My file,’ Alice said defiantly. ‘I want to see it.’
‘You want to see the back of my hand, my girl,’ Ethel replied, grabbing hold of Alice’s arm and leading her to the door.
She struggled. ‘I want –’
‘If Miss Lees finds you here you’ll have cooked your goose once and for all, and no mistake,’ Ethel said hotly, then dropped her voice. ‘Good God, Alice, do you want to ruin your chances? She thinks well of you – you could jeopardise everything by doing this. She would never trust you again.’
‘I don’t care!’ Alice said hotly. ‘I want to see my file.’
Annoyed, Ethel pulled the girl to the door, closed it and held out her hand.
‘Give me the key.’
‘I don’t have it.’
‘Don’t lie to me!’ she replied. ‘Give me the key.’
Defeated, Alice handed it to her and Ethel locked the door. Then she put the key into her own pocket and marched Alice downstairs in silence. When they got back to her room, Ethel let go of the girl’s arm and looked at her.
‘You have no idea how disappointed I am in you. I thought you’d stopped doing stupid things, Alice. I thought you’d settled down.’
Alice hung her head. She was crushed by the obvious contempt in Ethel’s voice.
‘Why did you do it?’
‘I wanted to see my file. No one would have shown it to me – so I thought I would find it for myself.’
Wearily Ethel sat down and then gestured for Alice to take the seat next to her.
‘Alice, no one knows anything about your family or your past.’
‘There must be something written down,’ Alice replied. ‘There must be some record.’ She looked hard into Ethel’s plump face. ‘I have to know. It’s driving me crazy.’
‘You’re driving yourself crazy,’ Ethel retorted.
‘I bet if it was you, you’d want to know.’
Ethel looked at the girl curiously. She was right: if their situations had been reversed, she would have wanted to know. Besides, she had always been curious about Alice Rimmer herself. Maybe there was something written down, something to tell them where she had come from.
‘I have to know …’ Alice said pleadingly. ‘I’m sorry if I’ve disappointed you. You’ve always been kind to me, but …’ She paused and her face became defiant again, ‘… I have to know. Can’t you see that? Ethel, you can understand that, can’t you?’
Ethel glanced away. She had always been too lenient with Alice, had always been too fond of her. In fact she had grown closer to her over the years, Alice coming to visit – although always uneasy after the incident with the toy horse. Birthdays had been remembered, at Christmas there had been presents sneaked in, and Ethel’s pride on seeing Alice grow up had been almost as great as seeing her own sons mature.
But now Ethel was angry with her. The stubborn wilful streak hadn’t gone, after all. It was just hidden, concealed.
‘How did you get hold of the key?’
There was a moment’s pause before Alice answered.
‘Miss Lees sometimes uses her side door. She locks the main door – but she leaves the key in. I slid a piece of paper under the door, then pushed out the key from the outside. It fell onto the paper and I then pulled the paper under the door with the key on it.’
‘Very clever,’ Ethel said coldly. ‘Where did you find out about that?’
Alice’s voice was low. ‘I read it in a book.’
Sighing, Ethel looked down. ‘Go back to bed.’
‘Go back to bed, Alice!’ she repeated, and watched as the girl left the room.
For a long time Ethel sat in her chair and listened to the clock ticking, and the water pipes clanking as someone flushed a cistern upstairs. She thought about Alice and worried. The girl was too reckless. It was madness to think of breaking in to look at her records!
Then suddenly Ethel remembered that the bottle of cough linctus that she’d taken to use as a cosh was still up in the principal’s office. Startled, she sat bold upright. If Clare Lees found it she would know that Ethel had been there. She wouldn’t know about Alice, because Ethel would never tell her, but she would have to explain what she had been doing in the principal’s office in the middle of the night.
Ethel felt faint with anxiety. She would be sacked, the money finished, and no references. Her reputation would be ruined … There was only one thing for it, she had to get the bottle back. Hurriedly she got to her feet, went back up the dim stairs and moved towards the principal’s office. Once there, she felt into her pocket and took out the key, unlocked the door and let herself in.
Moonlight shafted over the desk and along the floor. Ethel strained her eyes to see the bottle in the semidark. Finally she spotted it and grabbed it, moving quickly back to the door … Then she turned back. She paused, tempted. She looked at the desk. Her mouth dried, the moonlight falling over the wooden surface.
Get out, she told herself, get out now, before it’s too late. But she couldn’t. Suddenly she had to know what was in Alice’s file. Putting down the bottle again, Ethel ran her tongue over her dry lips and opened the drawer. Hurriedly she sifted through the A – Z listing, stopping on R. With shaking hands she lifted out the file on ALICE RIMMER.
She would be fired if she was caught. Out on her ear … Just put the file back, Ethel, she urged herself. Just put it back … But she couldn’t, and slowly opened the file. The moon shifted a little, throwing its helpful light over the paper as Ethel read the lines written on the first page. She reread them, and reeled, momentarily giddy. Then she slammed the file shut and turned.
On unsteady legs she walked to the door, clutching the bottle of linctus. Clumsily she relocked the door and then pushed the key underneath it as though it had fallen out of the lock. Holding tightly on to the banister rail she then moved down the stairs and back into her room. Once there Ethel Cummings fell into her chair and stared ahead of her.
Finally, she knew where Alice Rimmer came from. Knew who her parents were … A darkness settled over the room and over her heart. What she had read she wished she had never seen.
What she had read she would never forget.
Late the following afternoon Ethel came back to Netherlands for her next shift. She had not slept during the day and every enquiry of Gilbert’s was met with preoccupied distance. Each time she closed her eyes, Ethel saw the damning lines written in Alice’s file. Each time she opened her eyes, she saw the same words printed in headlines and snapping from newspaper stands.
Unusually quiet, she went back to work and then, finally, she sent for Alice. It took a while for the girl to arrive and during that time Ethel washed and rewashed several bandages which had never been used, just to keep herself busy.
Finally there was a soft rap at the door.
‘Come in, Alice.’
She walked in nervously and stood before Ethel, certain that she was about to be told that her nocturnal adventure had been reported to Clare Lees. A long moment passed, and then another. Alice finally looked at Ethel, concerned.
‘Are you all right?’
‘There’s nothing wrong with me,’ Ethel replied more sharply than she meant. ‘I wanted to have a word with you.’
How would she say it? How could she phrase the next lines? She paused, studied Alice and felt all the old affection well up in her. Dear God, what good would be served by telling her? What purpose? She had been shattered by the news; what would it do to a wilful, excitable girl?
It would ruin her, Ethel realised. And in that moment she made her decision.
‘Alice, I thought about what you said last night.’ Ethel paused, considering her next words. ‘I realised that it was only natural that you wanted to know about your past and your parents. Well, I went back to the office last night –’
Alice’s eyes had widened. ‘What?’
‘Ssssh!’ Ethel cautioned her. ‘This is between us. No one else must ever know. Listen to me, Alice, I have something to tell you.’
The girl stared at her, hardly breathing.
‘I went back and I looked for your file,’ Ethel paused again. ‘I looked once and then again. There was no file. I’m sorry, but there was nothing to see.’
She could feel the hope leave Alice’s body, see her eyes dulling, her lips pale. There was nothing to see. Nothing.
Gently, Ethel put her arms around her. ‘There, there, luv, I had to tell you. I couldn’t leave you wondering, could I? Couldn’t leave you imagining all sorts.’ She held on to the fourteen-year-old, and lied. ‘I’m afraid no one can tell you anything, luv. Because there’s nothing to know.’
The world had changed radically in the aftermath of the Great War. Outside the grim Netherlands Orphanage there were posters of women with their hair shingled, their hemlines raised. Some even wore make-up, and at the cinemas in Salford Mae West and Greta Garbo heralded in a new age of glamour. As did Charlie Chaplin, the little man taking on the big boys. Everything was changing, speeding up. In March the land speed record of over 200 miles per hour had been set and in May Lindbergh flew the Atlantic solo.
But at Netherlands Orphanage little had changed. The old regime was still intact, Clare Lees still the principal. She was badly stooped now, her dowager’s hump making her irritable, her voice shrill with the onset of old age and lost hopes. Evan Thomas had hung on too. He had thought his ship would have come in by now, but it appeared to have hit some unexpected rocks. Having been made deputy head several years earlier he was surprised to find himself still the deputy head, but he reckoned that he had come so far, it would be folly to give up now. After all, he was only thirty-six, and life still held promise.
Dolly Blake had also remained at Netherlands, but she had aged less phlegmatically, and now had a bitter expression about the mouth. Her ambitions had faltered and when time passed and she had looked close to being left on the shelf, she had decided that Andy was her best option. After all, nothing stopped her from seeing Evan Thomas after she was married.
Except Andy wasn’t quite the fool she’d taken him for. He had given up his other women, but had never trusted that Dolly would be so honourable. Two years after their wedding he’d come to pick her up from work one night unexpectedly – to find Evan Thomas with his hand down his wife’s blouse. All Dolly’s explaining, begging and cajoling had had no effect. Andy had left her.
The shock had rendered Dolly temporarily insensible, and Evan – sporting a spectacular set of bruises inflicted by an enraged Andy – had backed off fast. He didn’t want to have Dolly hanging round his neck, emotionally or professionally. After all, there had been a scandal and muck stuck.
Being a man, he had escaped the worst of the fallout, but the unfortunate Dolly had a ‘name’ now. It was obvious to everyone that the governors would never approve her promotion. Evan knew it. And Dolly knew it.
Rejected by her lover and deserted by her husband, Dolly had become a public laughing stock. The only place she could escape the gossips was Netherlands Orphanage, and to there she had retreated. The last person in the world to assume Clare Lees’ example, overnight it appeared that Dolly Blake became a prude.
‘You should see her,’ Ethel told Gilbert one Sunday as she folded the washing. ‘All buttoned up and tight-lipped, like some outraged virgin. If she sees one of the boys even looking at the girls she goes mad. Not that they can help it – the lads all hang around the railings when it’s time for church, ogling the lasses. Natural, I call it, but Dolly and Miss Lees think it’s something smutty.’
Gilbert laughed, paused in the carving of one of his wooden animals. It was just a hobby now, each one taking months to complete as he grew older and slower.
‘There’s nothing like poacher turned gamekeeper,’ he said. ‘I always said that the boys and girls should mix; having them separate like that makes them all the keener.’ He stared at the figure he was carving. ‘What about Evan Thomas? Still thinks he’s king of the midden?’
Ethel’s expression hardened. ‘He’s going to stay until Miss Lees retires or pops her clogs. That one’s hard-faced, all right. Too cocky by a half.’ She leaned against a pile of washed sheets. ‘You should see him, strutting about, bossing everyone behind Miss Lees’ back. A right toerag. Thing is, he thinks the job’s all but his – now that Dolly’s out of the running. He has no idea that Miss Lees has other plans.’
Gilbert smiled conspiratorially at his wife. ‘Our girl?’
She nodded, beaming with pride. She had never told Gilbert what she had discovered that night so long ago, and she never would. Instead she had watched over Alice with even more care and was rewarded by seeing her grow up well, gradually calming down. For Alice Rimmer had changed radically, both in appearance and temperament. It was not that she was any less emotional, simply that she had learned how to suppress her feelings, to control her outbursts. Her hotly exotic looks had cooled too. Beautiful she was, but quietly so.
The sensual strangeness had now been replaced by a true allure. The pale oval face, the dark eyes, the glossy hair were remarkable, and as Alice matured into a young woman she gave off an almost electrical charge. No one failed to recognise it, and many of her peers at Netherlands were jealous of her.
Only Hilly Barker bore Alice no resentment. Grown into a frail, elfin figure, she was as close to Alice as she had always been and was devoted to her. And so she should be, thought Ethel. After all, hadn’t Alice looked after and confided in Hilly when no one else wanted to know the sick girl in the sanatorium? Oh yes, Ethel thought, Alice was nothing if not loyal to her friends.
Another type of girl would have taken advantage of Hilly’s devotion and some of the younger girls’ slavish admiration – but Alice didn’t. Her thoughts were concentrated on one thing, and one thing only – to get away from Netherlands. Out into the world.
‘I have to get away,’ she had said months earlier. ‘I’ll go mad if I don’t.’
Ethel had soothed her, as ever. ‘In time, you will. But you’ve got the chance to get an education, Alice, so you should take the opportunity. Teachers get well paid and they’re respected. You could do a lot worse.’
Alice knew Ethel was right. Knowledge was the only way to gain respect. So she set to and she studied. Temperament and spirit were controlled. Outbursts only led to punishment and isolation. With a massive effort of will Alice learned to control her natural ebullience. Inside, she might be raging, but outside she seemed almost content with her lot.
The only one who was never fooled was Ethel. She had an instinct that Alice was plotting something, but had to admit that she was impressed by the girl’s application. Especially lately – now that Alice had confounded everyone by becoming Clare Lees’ favourite.
She didn’t ingratiate herself with the principal, but she was a quick learner and more than willing to take on some of the rudimentary teaching of the smallest children. The school inside Netherlands was makeshift, the education basic – but who was prepared to spend money educating foundlings? The future mill workers, pit boys and domestic servants? The books they had were out of date, the maps hopelessly old-fashioned, but Alice didn’t seem to mind. She could see an opportunity for herself – and she was going to take it.
The shift in power had been noticed by everyone. Evan Thomas was caught off guard and Dolly was white hot with envy.
Not for the first time, Ethel had taken it on herself to send out a warning to Alice.
‘I thought you hated Clare Lees,’ she had said a month earlier. ‘What are you up to now?’
Alice had turned her dark eyes on the matron ingenuously. ‘Why should I be up to anything?’
‘Because I know you,’ Ethel had replied. ‘I’ve known you since you were a child, and I can tell that you’re up to something.’
Alice had slid her arm through Ethel’s, the matron’s skin warm and soft to her touch. ‘I’m fine. I’m doing well now. I thought you’d be pleased.’
Ethel had studied her carefully. ‘I have to say that you’re the last person I ever expected to see teaching here.’
‘I love teaching,’ Alice had replied, ‘and the pupils seem to like me.’
Ethel had continued to study the remarkable face. But she didn’t accept the story – Alice was too beautiful to stay hidden away at Netherlands for ever. It might be all right for poor Miss Lees, but Alice was born for better things – and she had the beauty and the wit to achieve them.
‘Well, you be careful,’ Ethel had replied warningly. ‘I still say that you’re up to something. Watch out that you don’t tie a knot with your tongue that you can’t undo with your teeth. Evan Thomas thought he was the favourite – he won’t like being the loser.’
‘Don’t worry,’ Alice had reassured her, ‘I’m doing fine. Honestly, Ethel, I’m doing fine.’
Sighing, Ethel returned her thoughts to the present as she picked up the laundry. Then she looked at Gilbert. He had grown to love Alice over the years and she had seen in him a surrogate father. Something she desperately wanted. Something she had craved since she was a child. The trouble was, Ethel thought, that she already had a father – a man who might still be alive.
‘I think Alice might make a career of teaching,’ Ethel said. ‘I hope so. I want her to settle down and marry some nice lad –’
‘Hey, she’s only seventeen!’ Gilbert said sharply. ‘Give her a chance.’
‘Marriage would settle her down,’ Ethel responded. ‘A good solid home life would be the making of her.’ She thought back to the damning facts that only she knew. ‘The right man would give Alice stability.’
‘She’s got stability,’ Gilbert retorted. ‘She’s much less excitable than she used to be.’
Ethel shook her head. ‘Not really. That’s just what she wants you to think. That’s what she wants all of us to think.’
Clare Lees prided herself on the good job she had made of Alice Rimmer’s upbringing. The hysterical little girl who had arrived at Netherlands had been moulded into a clever young woman. She had calmed down, was reliable, and the children loved her. Oh yes, Clare thought, she had really achieved something with that girl.
Awkwardly she rose to her feet, her shoulders rounded and aching. The cold always made the pain worse, but what could you do about it in the middle of a Salford winter? Slowly she moved over to the fire and poked at the cheap coal. The room smelled damp to her, but maybe she was imagining it. Soon she would be in too much pain to keep going, but she had to hold on a bit longer, until Alice was twenty-one. Then she would be ready.
Clare gazed into the half-hearted flames. She had managed to raise more money from the governors, but she was well aware that Netherlands was hopelessly out of date and would require far more to be spent on it. They needed better plumbing, electrification throughout, updated furniture, desks, even coat pegs. And books. Lots of books to replace the dog-eared volumes which had passed through the hands of countless orphans.
The governors saw her as a dinosaur; Clare knew that all too well. She was a joke to them, but they couldn’t dislodge her because she had been loyal and given good service; dedicated her life to Netherlands … Clare nudged the coal with the tip of her boot. It shifted in the grate and sent up a little puff of smoke.
Alice would bring a breath of fresh air, a young outlook. That would impress the money men. They would look at Netherlands in a new light then, not as some outdated Victorian anachronism. Clare stretched her hands out to the fire to warm them. Thank God that no one knew the truth about Alice Rimmer, she thought. If they had, all her careful plans would fold. But how could anyone find out? The solicitor who had sent the child to her so long ago had died, and the single evidence of Alice’s past was in a locked-up file to which only Clare herself had access.
Settling herself down on a chair in front of the fire, Clare thought of Alice’s secret and how it had weighed on her mind. A year ago something had suddenly prompted her to remove Alice Rimmer’s file from her office. It had always been in safekeeping there, but its very existence had been beginning to nag at her. At first she had decided to destroy it, but that had seemed too extreme, so in the end she had put it in the bank with other confidential papers. There no one would find it. Clare knew only too well that people like Evan Thomas and Dolly Blake would be dangerous with such knowledge.
It would not have mattered had Alice Rimmer been just another foundling. If she had been a plain, dull child she would have sunk into the background; gone to work in a mill or as an undermaid for some well-off family. A different child would not have had the wit or the spirit to spark interest – but Alice had never been an ordinary child and she had all the making of an extraordinary woman.
Clare Lees’ envy of Alice had faded as the years bent her shoulders and took away all ambition or curiosity about the world. Now she merely admired Alice. The skittish child had grown up and become a responsible person, a young woman she could trust. And there were precious few people Clare Lees could trust.
She knew she was – and always had been – surrounded by opportunists. The Welshman was always waiting for his chance and was proving a jealous rival to Alice. As for Dolly Blake, she was washed up, a bitter woman consumed with righteousness. If she was getting no affection in her own life, no one else would. Every woman – simply by nature of being female – was now suspect to Dolly.
But Alice … Clare relaxed and then rubbed her shoulders. If she carried on the way she was, Alice Rimmer could be a person of some status. Memory came back quick and sharp – Alice Rimmer had been born to privilege but life and circumstance had take it away from her. If she knew the truth Alice would want far more than Netherlands had to offer. She would want her birthright – the birthright Clare Lees had so vigorously denied.
But it had been for the best, she reassured herself. It had been hard to shatter a child’s hopes, but it had cured Alice. In fact, she had no curiosity about her past any more. She never referred to her family or asked questions. The spirited, overconfident little girl had been reined in: Alice Rimmer would be content to live the life organised for her. She would serve, as Clare Lees had always done. She would do her duty.
It was the least she could do.
‘Sssh, keep your voice down,’ Victor said, leaning towards the gate which separated the boys’ quarters from the girls’ at Netherlands. His fingers reached through the railings timidly and touched the back of Alice’s hand. The feel of her skin warmed him, touched him to the heart.
‘Victor, can’t you sneak out?’ she asked, her eyes searching his shadowed face.
‘It’s not safe, tomorrow maybe.’
She nodded, disappointed but resigned. A sound behind her made Alice turn, but it was only a night bird in the bushes. To her right she could see the light burning in Clare Lees’ office.
‘We have to be careful.’
‘We’re always careful,’ Alice replied, not a little impatiently. How could he be so patient? She knew he cared for her.
Memory came in a tidal wave.
It had been a hot August day last summer, sun beating down the yard, dusty outside. Drowsy children had hung about listlessly in their dormitories, the staff idling in the corridors. Clare Lees had had visitors, the governors, the murmur of their voices coming low and lulling on the warm air. Alice, walking in the yard outside the main doors, had glanced over to the boys’ quarters – to see a tall, blond youth watching her.
Startled, she had looked away. Then turned back. He’d stared at her and then smiled slowly, as though it was something he was unused to doing. Nervous, Alice had looked away again, and when she had finally glanced back he had gone.
Yet later, still on that drowsy day which had hung its head to evening, when she walked back out into the yard he was there again, watching her.
‘Who are you?’ Alice had asked, walking over.
She had seen him on and off for years, but had never dared speak to him before. Well aware of the trouble she would be in if she was caught talking to one of the boys, Alice had glanced round to check that no one was watching her. She’d felt excited, her old spirit flaring.
He’d pressed his cheek to the bars. ‘I’m Victor, Victor Coates.’
‘How old are you?’
‘Eighteen. And you?’
‘Sixteen.’ She’d moved closer to him.
His eyes were steel grey, the lashes brown. It was a strong, open face, not at all alarming. After all that she had heard about boys and how they were not to be trusted, Alice had been disinclined to believe Clare Lees. What did she know, a spinster, a woman who had never had a man of her own?
‘We shouldn’t be talking …’
‘I know,’ Alice had agreed, her voice dropping further. ‘How long have you been here?’
‘Since I was seven.’
He’d frowned. ‘Huh?’
‘Why did you come here?’
‘My parents died.’ He had paused. ‘How about you?’
Alice had stared down at her feet. ‘My parents are dead too. I came here when I was only a year old.’ She’d looked back to him, fascinated. ‘Don’t you go out to work?’
He’d nodded. ‘I’m an apprentice at the cabinet-maker’s, Mr Dedlington’s.’
Alice had digested the information. An apprentice. That meant that Victor got out of Netherlands every day, went into Salford. A free man, almost.
‘Do you have to stay here?’
‘Until I’m qualified, yes,’ he’d replied, glancing over his shoulder. ‘I give my wages over every week to Miss Lees – I just get to keep enough for tobacco and a few bits and pieces.’
‘Why do you have to give up your money?’ she’d asked indignantly. ‘You earned it.’
‘It’s just the way things are here. When you start working, you’ll have to do the same.’
He had looked round again, knowing what he risked by being discovered. No more pocket money then, and in all likelihood they would take away his apprenticeship and give it to another boy. But he couldn’t tear himself away from Alice.
‘I’m not giving my money to them!’ she had replied hotly.
He had seen the flicker in her dark eyes and had been awed by her. ‘Are you working already?’
‘I’m learning how to be a teacher –’
He had whistled under his breath. A teacher, now that was really something.
‘You must be smart.’
‘Smart enough to want to get out of here,’ Alice had replied, leaning against the railings.
She had realised in that moment that this was the first conversation she had ever had as an equal. Ethel and Gilbert loved her, but she was a surrogate daughter to them. As for Hilly, she was grateful and looked up to Alice as her role model. But Victor was different; they had talked easily, from the heart.
‘You’ll get out in time.’
‘Not if Miss Lees has her way,’ Alice had replied quietly.
His curiosity had been stirred. ‘How d’you mean?’
‘She wants to train me up to be her assistant.’ Alice had replied. ‘I think she wants me to stay and eventually take over from her.’
Victor had been goggle-eyed with amazement.
‘God …’ Then he suddenly turned and moved away, leaving Alice standing alone by the gate.
But not for long; she too had heard the footsteps and had already been making her way back to the entrance when Evan Thomas moved in front of her.
‘Hello, Alice,’ he’d said pleasantly, his Welsh accent strong.
‘Hello, sir,’ she’d replied, moving past him.
Immediately he had stepped into her way.
‘You look pretty this afternoon, Alice.’ She had said nothing. ‘Pretty as a picture. Almost flushed about the cheeks. What’s that with, then?’
‘The heat, sir,’ she had replied coolly.
He couldn’t have seen her talking to Victor or he would have reported her to Miss Lees already. No, Alice had realised, he was just fishing, scenting something in the air.
‘You want to watch overheating yourself, Alice. You should stay indoors and not excite yourself.’
She had looked him square in the eyes. I know you don’t like me, Alice had thought. But I’m not going to be stupid enough to let you catch me out.
‘You’re right, sir,’ she’d said at last, walking past him. ‘Thank you for your concern.’
That day was almost a year ago, and since that time Alice and Victor had become more than friends. As Clare Lees relied more and more on her protégée, she little realised that Alice was sneaking off to meet Victor Coates whenever she could. Although she had bored of her evening wanderings, Alice now found a new reason to escape Netherlands. Victor might protest, insist that they were heading for trouble, but he always gave in.
They would usually meet under the viaduct, Alice waiting impatiently, or running to Victor if he arrived first. What began as an innocent prank soon altered, though; their friendship was immediate – and so was their attraction. Aware of her age and wary of her exuberance, Victor tried to resist. But they were children who had had little affection in their lives and now took it, greedily, from one another.
It was dangerous in more ways than one. If Clare Lees found out, Alice’s rise would be over and the hated Welshman would become the favourite again. And with him would go Dolly Blake, clinging to his coat-tails like an angry beggar. Then what would there be left for Alice? Going into service, or a factory. But there was something else to consider. If they were caught Victor would be sent away. Alice shivered. If Victor was sent away, her life would be empty. And she couldn’t follow him, because she would never know where he had gone. They would never tell her.
She couldn’t bear that; couldn’t stomach the thought of losing him. They had tried to resist each other, only touching hands at first and whispering to each other, but after a year passed every touch of the hand became more powerful than the last. Her voice he heard above everyone else’s; his face she saw amongst the scores of children at the home. They had found love in each other and were holding on to it against all the odds. And the very danger of their situation made their feelings stronger daily.
So the months passed. With Clare Lees, Alice was dutiful and patient. She would made a fine teacher, Clare said, it was good to know that the future would be in a steady pair of hands. Ethel was proud of her too. As was Gilbert. But at night Alice forgot every duty heaped on her head and crept out to the town. Or, as this evening, to the partition railings where she rested her cheek against the bars, only an inch away from Victor’s.
‘Do you love me?’ she asked, looking up at the huge summer moon.
‘You know I do,’ he whispered.
She moved towards him, her hands pressed against the bars. ‘Then why don’t we run away?’
‘They’d catch us!’
‘They wouldn’t!’ Alice replied firmly. ‘Don’t you want us to be together?’
‘More than anything,’ Victor replied, ‘but it would be wrong. We have to wait, Alice. I’m nineteen now; when I reach twenty-one I’ll have finished my apprenticeship and we can get married –’
‘That’s two years from now!’ Alice replied, her face half lit by the yellow moon. ‘How can you ask me to wait two years? You don’t have to work with Clare Lees. You don’t want to get away from here as much as I do.’
He caught hold of her hand. She could get so excited, he thought, so fired up.
‘Ssssh!’ he warned her. ‘Two years isn’t long, Alice. I love you, you know that. If we wait we can do it right –’
She pulled her hand away from his. ‘I don’t want to do it right! I want to live now, not in two years’ time. Anything could happen in two years!’ Her voice rose suddenly and she got to her feet to move away.
Hurriedly Victor caught at the hem of her summer dress.
‘Hey! Don’t run away, let’s talk, Alice, please.’
But she was past talking that night. Angrily she pulled away her skirt and moved off, Victor watching her as she turned and walked through the heavy double doors of the entrance hall.
He waited for her at the viaduct the following night, and the night afterwards. But she didn’t come. On the third night he waited in the rain and then, after midnight, turned to leave. Only then did he hear her footsteps and moved back to the railings, just as Alice – wet hair sticking to her head – ran to him and brushed her lips hotly against his neck.
Victor’s hand grasped hers. ‘Oh, thank God, thank God. I thought you’d never come again.’
‘I had to,’ Alice replied. She had tried to keep away, but couldn’t resist any longer. ‘I missed you, I missed you so much.’
‘Then you agree that we’ll wait?’ Victor asked her, holding her face in his hands.
‘Yes, yes!’ she said, tossing her wet hair away from her face. ‘If I can … I’ll try, Victor. But I hate it at Netherlands. I hate it more and more every day. I’m lying to everyone, even Ethel. As for Clare Lees, I’m betraying her and it makes me feel so guilty.’
‘But she was never kind to you.’
‘I know,’ Alice agreed, ‘I know! But all this creeping about’s not funny any more. I care about you, Victor. It was a joke at first, but now, if anyone found out and they sent you away …’ She took in a quick breath and he clung on to her.
‘No one will, we just have to be careful, that’s all.’ He could sense her panic, her alarm. ‘Calm down, Alice, please. We have to be very careful and wait.’
She nodded, the rain falling down from the dark sky.
‘We have to meet less often –’
‘No!’ she shouted, her arms wrapping around him, her body pressing against his. He was aware of her scent and passion, aware that he wanted her more than anything.
‘Sweetheart, you know as well as I do that we can’t hide our feelings,’ he said quietly, his hands moving into her hair and turning her face up to his.
Slowly he kissed her cheeks, her closed eyelids, her mouth, his excitement rising, their bodies moulded into each other. He thought, for a drowsy instant, that he was drowning.
Suddenly he drew away. ‘Alice, we have to be more careful. We’ll give ourselves away. Someone will see us if we don’t hold back a bit.’
‘I can’t live without you.’
‘We’ll meet up every Sunday night. Every Sunday, here at the viaduct. If one of us can’t get away, we’ll meet at the railings at Netherlands after lights out.’ He kissed the tips of her fingers. ‘Alice, we have to be clever and get through this. We have to be cunning for another two years. Then we’re free. You understand, don’t you? You can do what I ask, can’t you, sweetheart? Can’t you?’
Her heart was pumping fast, her head spinning. How many Sundays were there in two years? Could she live through them? But what was the choice? If she was careless she lost Victor. And if she lost Victor, she lost everything.
Her hand went up to his face and cupped his cheek.
‘I love you,’ she said earnestly. ‘The time will pass quickly, Victor, won’t it? It will, won’t it?’
In the courtyard of Netherland Evan Thomas lit a cigarette and then carefully blew out the match. He sniffed the air and then brushed some nonexistent fluff off his shoulder. Summer nights – he usually hated them. Too hot to sleep, too hot to work. But not too hot to walk … His full lips curled into a satisfied smile and he inhaled deeply.
Women were all the same. They could never keep their heads. He slipped back into the shadows and watched as Alice ran noiselessly back into the home. Now where had she been? he wondered. She had obviously sneaked out, but to where? And why?
The Welshman smiled again, truly happy. Alice Rimmer had caused him some grief, but perhaps he would soon be able to repay the compliment. All he had to do was to watch her and find out what she was up to, then he could expose her … She had been so smug, so certain of her standing with Clare Lees. She had usurped him good and proper. But that was all about to change. When their beloved principal learned that her protégée was not quite as perfect as she seemed … Oh yes, Evan could imagine the fracas which would follow. Clare would feel betrayed and would be sure to punish Alice. Off the pedestal the girl would go, and back on would go Evan.
How sad. But there you were, Evan told himself, he had a duty to do. Alice Rimmer had defied the home’s rules of conduct; shown her true colours. She was deceitful; certainly not the kind of woman to look after children.
He whistled between his teeth. He was tempted to tell Clare immediately, but thought it better to bide his time. After all, what had he to tell her? Only that Alice Rimmer sneaked out at night. If he went now, it was simply his word against the girl’s. And Clare liked Alice Rimmer. God forbid, Clare might even take her side. But if he waited and could find out why Alice went out – and if he could give Clare Lees proof …
Yes, that was what was needed. Proof … Evan sighed. The rain had stopped and the night was placid again. Like himself. Slowly he unlocked the wrought-iron gates and passed through them onto the street outside. It looked commonplace to him.
He was thankful that it looked so tempting to Alice Rimmer.
The governors of Netherlands were exasperated with Clare Lees – and not for the first time. She was too much of an authoritarian, they said. Times had changed, there was no need for Victorian values any more. They had to hand it her, though; she had done sterling work at Netherlands, but her regime was outdated.
They told her so. She told them that she was preparing someone – one of the orphans – to take over from her in a few years’ time. This was news.
The Reverend Mr Grantley helped himself to three more biscuits and leaned his head towards Mrs Tomkinson, wife of Albert Tomkinson, wealthiest man in Salford. She moved away from the dyed head looming towards her and smiled stiffly.
‘A new brush always sweeps clean,’ she said.
Mr Grantley nodded and swallowed his second custard cream. Beside him sat the local MP, Sir Henry Hollis, irritable as a cornered wolf. The vicar addressed him.
‘I think –’
‘What’s that?’ Sir Henry said, leaning towards Mr Grantley, his thin face pinched with irritation.
‘Mrs Tomkinson was talking about Alice Rimmer, the young lady who might take over from Miss Lees.’
The clergyman sighed. ‘In a few years. Miss Lees has just been telling us about it.’
‘I didn’t hear anything about some foreigner.’
The vicar paused in his chewing and looked at the old man. ‘Which foreigner?’
‘This one you’re bloody talking about, Grantley!’ he snapped. ‘Don’t horse me about, I’m not a man to mess with.’
Mrs Tomkinson leaned across the vicar, the feather on her hat brushing crumbs off his biscuit.
‘We weren’t talking about a foreigner, Henry. We were talking about the young lady who is going to take over from Miss Lees.’
‘I don’t like foreigners!’ Sir Henry went on. ‘You can never understand a thing they say.’
Mr Grantley smiled obsequiously. ‘I don’t think –’
‘You’re right there,’ Sir Henry replied, ‘You never did think much. I could never see why you were made a governor here anyway.’
Mrs Tomkinson leaned further towards the old man, the vicar forced back into his seat.
‘I think it’s a good idea to train someone new for the position. We need new blood. Besides, the girl is an orphan; has been here since she was a child. From what I’ve heard, she seems admirably suited.’
The girl was at that moment waiting outside. Clare Lees had primed Alice carefully and was determined that her charge would impress the governors. It would reflect well on her, and besides, if Alice Rimmer succeeded to her job, Clare would never have to relinquish her status at Netherlands entirely.
Nervously, she went out to bring Alice before her inquisitors.
‘You know what to say, don’t you?’
Alice nodded. She was dressed in a navy suit, her full dark hair pulled back. The remarkable face was composed. Thank God, Clare thought, that its beauty had toned down – now that the wildness was gone.
‘I know what to say,’ Alice replied evenly.
‘I’m relying on you,’ Clare responded. ‘This is the chance of a lifetime, Alice. Do us both proud.’
Breathing in deeply, Clare ushered Alice before the governors. It was another sweltering day, Mrs Tomkinson looking like a broiled chicken under her feathered hat, Mr Grantley still chewing on his last biscuit. As for the old man beside him, Sir Henry seemed as dry and hard as a rock bun.
‘Sit down, young lady,’ he said, watching as Alice did so. ‘We’ve heard a lot about you. A great deal. You seem to have impressed Miss Lees. So you want to be principal here in due course?’
Alice nodded, then wondered how she had been cajoled into this position. No, she wanted to say. I don’t want to be principal of this dismal place. I don’t want to be another Clare Lees. I want to run away with Victor and get as much distance between myself and these grim walls as I can.
But she didn’t say it.
‘Miss Lees believes I can do the job –’
‘Speak up!’ Sir Henry snapped. ‘I can’t stand a woman who whispers.’
‘I said I believe I can do the job,’ Alice repeated, turning to look at Mrs Tomkinson.
The woman was watching her with an expression of interest and envy. She had been taken aback when Alice walked in; this was not the obedient little mouse she had been expecting. This was a beauty, a young woman who looked like she could turn heads and hearts. Hardly someone who would be satisfied with Netherlands.
‘Are you sure this is what you want?’ she asked Alice coolly. ‘I mean, Netherlands is not the most exciting place on earth. My husband was saying only the other day that he couldn’t for the life of him see why anyone would want to work here.’ She turned her head, the feathers on her hat wiping the underneath of the vicar’s nose. ‘It would be hard work.’
‘Indeed, indeed,’ Mr Grantley replied, nodding violently.
‘But you would be repaying the debt you owe,’ Mrs Tomkinson continued. ‘I mean, Netherlands has been a home to you since you were a baby.’
A home, Alice thought angrily. What kind of home was always damp, cold, overcrowded, comfortless? What kind of home, Mrs Tomkinson, Alice wanted to ask, never held its children? Or picked them up when they cried? I don’t owe you a thing. Not a bloody thing.
But she said nothing of what she was feeling, her eyes unfathomable. ‘I think I could do the job –’
‘That’s not what I’m asking, is it?’ Mrs Tomkinson replied. ‘I need to know – we all need to know – if you are suitable.’
Alice studied her dispassionately. She knew who Leonora Tomkinson was and wondered how a woman as ridiculous and plump as she was could have landed a rich husband. Rumour had it that her Albert wasn’t faithful, but Alice doubted if his wife minded. After all, she had the power and the money, why should she worry about her husband’s flings?
‘I’ve been at Netherlands nearly all my life,’ Alice went on calmly. ‘I know how the home runs.’
‘But would you be prepared –’
‘What?’ Sir Henry interrupted, ‘what about affairs?’
‘No one said anything about affairs!’ Mrs Tomkinson snapped, her head whipping round and catching Mr Grantley in the eye with a feather. ‘I was about to ask Alice Rimmer if she would be prepared to dedicate her life to Netherlands.’
‘I didn’t hear that –’
Mrs Tomkinson rolled her eyes. ‘Because I hadn’t got around to saying it.’
‘Then how could the girl answer?’ Sir Henry asked blithely.
At this point Clare Lees interrupted. ‘I took the liberty to write out some notes for all of you about Alice,’ she said, gesturing to the papers in front of them. ‘They explain why I think she is qualified and what her qualities are that make her the best candidate for the post.’
‘I thought you were keen on your Welsh deputy head?’ Mr Grantley said, ducking to dodge the pheasant feathers.
Clare was not about to be sidetracked. ‘Mr Evans has many good points, but I feel that Alice – although so young – would make the better principal.’
‘Well,’ Mrs Tomkinson said, looking over to Alice. ‘She certainly seems very … composed.’
‘I was thinking the very same thing,’ the Vicar chimed in.
Ignoring him, Mrs Tomkinson asked Clare Lees, ‘Do you think that this girl could really be your successor?’
Alice could feel her temper flare. They were talking about her as though she wasn’t there. And what could she do about it? She was a nobody, some orphan who had to be grateful for any consideration. She was beholden to them – these powerful people who had given her a home, who were now considering her for a position as lifelong dogsbody. It made her sick, Alice thought. She wanted to knock off Leonora Tomkinson’s ludicrous hat and push the Vicar’s dyed head into the plate of biscuits.
Clare Lees was aware that there was a friction in the air and did her best to soothe it.
‘Mrs Tomkinson, Alice has the makings of a very good teacher, and she is very reliable. She works hard and explains her lessons clearly.’
‘I dare say … but are you willing to make running Netherlands your life’s work?’
Alice smiled, almost surprised to be addressed directly.
‘Yes,’ she lied, the sarcasm tingling her tongue. ‘it would be an honour.’
They were selling her into slavery, Alice thought, the dull drone of Leonora Tomkinson’s voice continuing, Sir Henry peering at her through his thick glasses. Her attention wandered to the courtyard outside. It was Friday; soon it would be Sunday and she would see Victor again. Her eyes fixed on the wall outside, sunlight making it temporarily golden.
She should tell them that she wasn’t interested in being the principal – but what would that do? Result in her being sent off to a menial job outside. But so what? Alice wondered. Outside it would be easier to meet up with Victor … Oh Victor, she wondered, why don’t I tell them that I don’t give a damn about any of this?
Then she remembered what he had told her so many times. You have a chance to be someone, take it. I’ll be a qualified tradesman and you’ll be a teacher. When we leave then we can make some real money. Think about it, he’d urged her. You’re too clever to be a nobody.
So she went along with it.
She turned to Mrs Tomkinson. ‘Yes, ma’am?’
‘I have to tell you that I’m not wholly convinced –’
‘Well, I like the girl,’ Sir Henry interjected.
Mrs Tomkinson gave him a look that should have turned him into a pile of ash there and then.
‘I like her and I think it’s a good idea. I’m not a man to mess with and I approve,’ the old man went on, Clare Lees beaming. ‘You have my permission to train her up. We need a good-looking young woman to bring this place into the present.’
Clare Lees wasn’t sure why Alice’s good looks made her the right candidate, but she didn’t complain. If she got her way, that was all that was important. So she happily ushered Alice back out into the corridor and briefly tapped the girl’s shoulder.
‘You did well.’
For a moment Alice felt a real guilt. She wanted to confess that she was a fraud, that she didn’t want the job. Then she thought of the odious Welshman and smiled.
‘Thank you, Miss Lees.’
‘Mrs Tomkinson needs to be won over, but Sir Henry has the real clout, so what he says, goes,’ Clare went on. ‘This is an important day, Alice. This is a day which marks out the rest of your life.’
The words wedged firmly into Alice’s chest like an arrow tipped with poison.
It was a wicked late summer that year. Temperatures were high, the mills belching out their fetid smoke into the muggy overhang of sky. Salford steamed under the sun, the doors of the terraced houses thrown open to let in some air, the streets greasy with the light evening showers which did nothing to cool, only increased the humidity. The warmth – unexpected and oppressive – fell like a smothering mattress. The town was choked with hot people, flea-bitten dogs and food going rancid before its time.
But inside the thick walls of Netherlands it was cool, untouched by the heat. Untouched by anything.
‘Good Lord,’ Ethel said to Hilly, mopping her forehead. The girl was sick again, back in the sanatorium. ‘I’ve just got back from town and it’s smouldering. I can’t take this heat, and as for Gilbert, he’s a martyr to the summer.’
Hilly smiled her long-distance smile.
‘They said there would be thunderstorms.’ Her voice was weak, as insubstantial as she was.
‘Good God, I hope so. Something has to break,’ Ethel replied, folding some sheets and peering at a hole in the cotton. ‘I’ve never known it so hot.’
Later that night Ethel was lying next to Gilbert, a single sheet over them both. Then thrown off. Then pulled back again.
Sticky and overtired, Gilbert grumbled, turning constantly.
‘Aye, Ethel, it’s like sleeping next to a fire, luv. Get over your own side of the bed, you’re burning me up.’
His wife, hair damp against her neck, was not in the mood to be patient.
‘It’s as hot for me as it is for you, Gilbert Cummings! You want to stop grumbling. I’ve hardly had any bloody sleep and I’ve a job to go to in the morning.’ She rolled her bulk over and lay on her back, Gilbert muttering beside her.
She couldn’t sleep so she might as well think. Her thoughts turned to Alice immediately and Ethel smiled to herself. It had been a real worry for a long time, wondering how the girl would turn out, but things were going to be OK. The governors had been impressed by her, Sir Henry Hollis especially. As for Clare Lees, she had been beaming when she told Ethel – for once confiding, even happy.
Oh yes, Alice was set up nicely. She would take over from Miss Lees and, Ethel hoped, meet some nice young man and marry him. She should have children too. After all, the principal of the home didn’t have to be single, did she?
Ethel frowned as Gilbert nudged her. ‘You’re leaning against me, luv, move over.’
‘There was a time when you’d have done anything to have me lean against you,’ she teased him, feeling Gilbert take her hand.
Again, her thoughts wandered. How would Alice meet a man at the home? The place was full of children and the few teachers there were hardly eligible. Ethel thought suddenly of Evan Thomas and grimaced. Now there was a man who could tell a lie and prove it … No, Alice would have to get out and about more to find a suitor.
It was silly the way the home was run; the children kept apart. They should be mixing with the local children long before they left – learning to act and behave naturally. As if the sigma of being an orphan wasn’t enough, Ethel thought. She had heard what the townspeople said; how they kept their distance from the Netherlands offspring and advised their children to do the same. Don’t go staring at the orphans. They have to rely on charity. If you’re bad, you’ll be sent to that big ugly building and left there …
Local gossip had long since sentenced Netherlands to be an island in the midst of the town. Many of the people outside might be poor, but they had families, which was more than a Netherlands child did. The shabby hand-me-down clothes didn’t help either. Ethel had heard of many of the girls going out to work in service and being teased. As for the boys, there had been a number of fights caused by people mocking the institution head-shaving and wooden clogs.
Some of the children bolted when they came of age and left the town. Tommy Cotterall had done just that and ended up – two years later – in Strangeways for theft, a fact which only compounded people’s suspicions of the orphans. Others automatically slipped into the role of subservient dogsbodies and lived their lives in the shadows. They should be grateful that they had been given a home, a job, a chance, the mantra went.
Hardly any of them made anything of their lives. But how could they? Ethel wondered. The education was rudimentary and they had no social graces. They were orphans, the stigma running through them like a place name in a stick of rock.
But Alice … she was going to be the one to show them all. She was going to make them proud. People would look at her and be impressed, and in time she would become a marvellous figurehead for Netherlands. And no one, but no one, would ever know who she really was. Least of all herself.
Uncomfortable again, Ethel moved.
‘Oh, stay still!’ Gilbert moaned. ‘You’re like fly on an elephant’s arse.’
She jabbed him in the ribs and turned over.
What would Alice have done if she’d discovered her past? The thought made Ethel sweat. It would have been a disaster and, knowing Alice as she did, Ethel realised she would not have been able to cope with the knowledge and the damnation it would surely bring. No one would have given her a chance if they had discovered who her father was; and if Alice had known, highly strung as she was, she would have been crushed under such a burden.
Thank God, Ethel thought, that there was no need to worry any more. The past was just that, the past. A secret no one knew, and no one could uncover. Alice Rimmer was safe from the gossips.
And from herself.
The heat built up over the next three days and by Sunday evening the town was smouldering. In the park the trees hung listlessly, the gravel outside the entrance door of Netherlands dusty and whitened. Buses droned past the gates and when Mr Grantley read the sermon at evensong the air was drowsy, eyelids drooping closed amongst the congregation.
Everyone agreed that the heat couldn’t last, but the promised rainstorms hadn’t come. Slowed by the temperature and her arthritis, Clare Lees took a while to reach the lectern and when she read the lesson her voice snuffled amongst the pews like an animal looking for shade to hide. The day had seemed to pass like a dream, nothing substantial, and when the service was over the congregation walked out into the humid air and winced.
As always, Alice had sat next to Clare Lees and stolen a few glances at Dolly Blake, stiff in a paisley dress, her round face shiny. Behind her had sat Evan Thomas, as glossy as an apple, catching Alice’s eye and smiling. She had not smiled back.
Standing on the hot gravel outside, Alice paused and glanced at her watch. In three hours’ time she would see Victor. The thought soothed and excited her at the same time. Victor, who was so sensible; Victor, who was planning their future; Victor, who loved her, controlled her impulses and made her think of their future.
She wondered how she could possibly have lived without him. How could she have endured the grind at the home? The persistent lecturings of Clare Lees? The yawning future which would have loped before her so unappetisingly? Without him, Alice knew she would never have gone on. She would have run away, done something reckless.
But there was no need to be reckless now. She had found her rock, her man. All she had to do was to follow his lead and they would be together … She glanced at her watch again. Hurry up, she urged, hurry up. I want to see him, to touch his hand, to hear his voice. Loving Victor was easy. The easiest thing that she’d ever done.
Alice turned at the sound of Evan’s voice. His brown eyes were hard as nuts.
‘No, should I?’
‘I just wondered. You keep looking at your watch.’
She shrugged, but her heart was thumping. This was a man who hated her and would do anything to ruin her. Be careful, Alice told herself, be very careful.
‘It was a good sermon.’
Unexpectedly, Evan laughed. ‘Oh really, how can you say such a thing?’ He leaned towards her. ‘You’re a good liar, aren’t you, Alice?’
A vein was throbbing in her neck. ‘No better than you, sir,’ she answered back.
He was nettled by the remark. ‘I doubt if I’m in your league,’ he replied peevishly. ‘You’ve had so much practice.’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about –’
‘Secrets …’ he said distantly. Then his tone brightened. ‘I’m off now. Going out tonight. I bet you wish you could go out, Alice, don’t you? A pretty girl like you could go dancing, have the lads all of a – flutter.’
The sun had gone down, but the air was moist, hot, and clung to her like a demanding child.
‘I’m happy where I am.’
‘There you go,’ Evan said, smiling, ‘lying again.’
Alice watched him walk towards the gates and stayed watching him until he passed through them and locked them behind him. He paused to look through the bars at her and she shuddered. There was something about his look, some smugness, that made her stomach churn.
‘Are you OK?’ Hilly asked, walking over and looking at Alice anxiously.
‘I’m fine,’ Alice replied, her voice strained. Eager to shake off the feeling of unease, she slipped her arm through Hilly’s. ‘Glad you’re out of the sanatorium.’
‘Me too. I don’t suppose I’ll be out for long, though.’
Alice squeezed her arm. ‘You’re getting stronger every day.’
Laughing, Hilly teased her. ‘Oh, Alice, that’s a lie and you know it.’
The word tingled in the air and, spooked, Alice turned back towards the gate. But there was no man looking in. And all she could see was the quick flash of a bicycle wheel as it passed on its way to God knows where.
Clare Lees was slumped in her easy chair in the office. Her back hurt her and it was painful even to move. So she had wedged herself against the seat and waited for the spasm to pass. Which it would, in time. Her eyes fixed on the print on the opposite wall. It was of a man on horseback, wielding a banner … Above her head she could hear the sound of footsteps running and then a door banged closed. She winced. How many times had she told the children not to run? Dolly should stop it, or Evan … Then she remembered that Evan was off that night. Clumsily, Clare shifted in her seat again and looked out of the window. Her throat tightened. She hated the view, loathed the dull block of gravel and the closed mouth of the gates. Hated the sign in wrought iron – ‘NETHERLANDS HOME FOR CHILDREN’ – and the chained padlock glinting in the dying light.
It was just because she was in pain, she told herself. Before long she would feel better, more like her old self … But although the spasm lifted after a while, her mood stayed sombre. The darkness was coming down and the Sunday night town was falling quiet. Only muffled noises from hidden lives crept intermittently over the closed gates.
Shivering, Clare felt herself grow cold in the humid air, and lowered her head. Something pressed against her heart and hung around her chair.
The world was wicked that night.
‘I love you so much,’ Victor said, holding Alice’s hand tightly. His skin seemed to burn into hers. ‘I could see you in the chapel. You looked so beautiful.’
They had arranged to meet at the viaduct, but that morning Victor had signalled their private sign in church to say that they should meet at the Netherlands railings after lights out instead.
Alice nuzzled against the bars, the metal for once warm to the touch. ‘I’ve been thinking about you all day. I could hardly wait to see you.’
He put his hand in his pocket and brought out a brown paper bag, passing it to Alice through the railings.
‘What’s this?’ she asked, surprised.
‘Open it,’ he said simply, watching her face as she did so.
‘It’s perfume!’ Alice said excitedly. ‘Oh, my God! I’ve never had perfume before.’ Carefully she dabbed a little on her wrists and drank in the scent, her eyes closed. ‘Thank you, Victor, thank you.’
He thought in that moment that if he died there and then he would never be happier.
‘It must have cost so much,’ she whispered. ‘How did you afford it?’
‘I saved up,’ he said proudly. ‘Only the best is good enough for you, Alice. In time we’ll only have the best. You wait and see, one day we’ll have a fine house and money. You’ll have enough perfume to bathe in.’
She laughed, the sound throaty, mesmeric.
‘I love it …’ Alice said, ‘and I love you.’
The heat curled around them as she put her arms through the bars. He did the same and for an instant it seemed that there was nothing between them. Nothing holding them apart. The night, soft and heavy, closed over them. High above a huge late summer moon – a hunter’s moon – came out from behind a cloud. Its vast yellow face hung overhead and threw its light down on the two embracing figures.
Then another light came on. A sudden light. Torchlight. Alice turned, blinded, Victor holding on to her.
‘Who is it? Who’s there?’
There were two people, but Alice couldn’t make out who they were until they were almost upon them. Then the torchlight was lowered slightly and she saw Evan Thomas – and Clare Lees. Alice’s voice dried in her throat, her head falling forward.
Victor clambered to his feet. ‘It’s all my fault!’ he blustered. ‘If you want to punish anyone, punish me. It wasn’t her fault. I convinced Alice to come here.’
‘A nice try,’ Evan replied, delighted, ‘but this isn’t the first time, is it?’
He had watched Alice for the past ten days. She hadn’t sneaked out of Netherlands again, but his patience had finally paid off when she met up with Victor that night. It was perfect, Evan thought; nothing could look so incriminating. And from the way they had been clinging on to each other it was obvious to him – and to Clare Lees – that their relationship was not platonic.
Rigid with shock, Alice did not move, her hands still clinging to the place on the railings where Victor had been. She could sense Clare Lees looking at her.
‘Is this true, Alice? Have you met up with this boy before?’
She nodded, too sick to speak.
‘You’ve been going behind my back all this time?’ Clare Lees went on. She seemed more stooped, older. The Welshman was grinning like a jackal at her side. ‘How could you? How could you repay me like this? I trusted you –’
‘Leave her alone!’ Victor shouted back, frantically climbing over the railings and jumping down on the other side. Without thinking, he caught hold of Evan and shook the older man’s shoulders, shouting at the top of his voice. ‘We’ve done nothing wrong! We love each other, that’s all. We’ve done nothing wrong!’
Incensed, the Welshman pushed Victor away.
Clare Lees walked over to Alice and stared down at her. Hatred seeped out of every pore.
‘You should be in the dirt,’ she said finally. ‘That’s where you came from – and where you belong.’
Worse was to follow. After Clare Lees told Alice to leave Netherlands immediately, Victor was similarly banished. As Clare Lees and the odious Evan walked off together, Victor turned back to an ashen-faced Alice.
‘We’ll marry, sweetheart, we’ll get through this.’
Her expression was a blank. ‘Did you hear what she said? She knows something about me, about where I came from.’
Victor snatched at her arm as Alice started to move towards the retreating figures.
‘Leave it be, leave it –’
Angrily she shook him off and called after Clare Lees: ‘What do you mean – I should be in the dirt? Where did I come from? Who am I?’
The hunter’s moon shone eerily down on Clare Lees’ face as she turned to her former protégée. Disappointment and rage made her ugly. But even then, even after she had seen Alice betray her and realised that her dream of the future was over, even then she wasn’t cruel enough to strike the final blow.
‘Get out of here. Just get out, Alice.’
‘NO!’ Alice’s voice rose shrilly. Victor tried to pull her away but she would have none of it. She had nothing to lose any more and wanted the truth.
‘Tell me! Tell me who I am!’
‘I don’t have to tell you anything,’ Clare Lees replied, her voice hard with rage. ‘I owe you nothing –’
‘You owe me the truth!’ Alice snapped. ‘Please, for the love of God, tell me and I’ll go away. Please.’
Sensing real anguish, Clare hesitated. What better way to punish Alice Rimmer once and for all? She would never know the truth from her. She could sweat and beg and cry – but she would never tell her. The truth was ghastly, but how much worse was never knowing.
By her side, Evan Thomas watched Alice writhe and saw his chance to strike. Had he been less willing to injure her he would have noticed Clare Lees’ reticence; but he had hated Alice too long and wanted her gone too much to hold back. His spying had extended further than merely watching Alice. He had – on a recent errand for the principal – taken the opportunity of rifling through the old papers in the bank when he had been asked to deposit something. His surprise at coming across Alice Rimmer’s file in amongst so much dull paperwork had been acute, but what he had read there was dynamite. He had wanted to shout what he knew from the rooftops, but had kept the secret, and – as was his way – decided to bide his time. Until the perfect moment arose.
‘Your father was David Lewes,’ he said, walking closer to Alice and looking into her face. ‘If the name doesn’t mean anything to you, he was the man who killed his wife. Your mother. You want to know who you are, Alice? You’re the daughter of a murderer. How does that feel, to know what you are?’
Staggered, Clare Lees felt her legs weaken and then saw the look on Alice’s face. The girl was staring at Evan Thomas, Victor beside her. She said nothing. Moments passed. The smug look on Evan’s face disappeared. Then, finally, Alice turned and walked to the gate.
‘Open it,’ she said over her shoulder.
Stunned, Evan did as he was told. Victor ran to Alice’s side but she shook off his hand. ‘Don’t! You don’t want me. Stay away. No one should come near me.’
Then she moved through the heavy iron gates and before Victor could do anything she pulled them closed with a metallic clang; leaving herself on the outside and him on the inside.
Gently she reached through the bars and touched Victor’s face.
‘There was always something between us, wasn’t there? Always something which kept us apart. You should be glad of that now.’
It was well known that the stupidest family in Salford were the Booths. Rumour had it that Mr Terence Booth – who worked at the UCP tripe shop – volunteered for the German army when he was called up. As for his wife, Lettie Booth, she made dresses – cheap ones for the mill girls and the women in the surroundings streets who couldn’t afford 11/9d for a summer frock from the Co-op. So Lettie codged up some pretty nifty designs with end of rolls from Tommy Field’s market. But she sold them too cheaply, hardly making a profit and working like a dray horse constantly to make ends meet.
Lettie was a master on the sewing machine, but otherwise semiliterate. Small, with a short-sighted stare, only she could see something fanciable in her husband, a redhead with jug ears. It was inevitable that they married, and before five years were out, they had had three little Booths, all red-headed, all jug-eared and all impressively stupid.
The Booths lived in Trafalgar Street, just a few rows from the town centre. Two doors away from their poky terrace house lived the Hopes, fierce as Huguenot martyrs, and in between lived a solitary single woman, called Alice Rimmer. She had moved into the rented accommodation a week or so before and was apparently ill.
‘I’ve not seen hide nor hair of her,’ Lettie said to her husband, who was holding a sheet of newspaper up to the fire to set it going. The summer heat had gone, Northern chill in its place. ‘D’you suppose she’s all right?’
The fire took suddenly and lit the bottom of Terence’s newspaper. He jumped back, Lettie beating down the flames with her apron. He was left holding half of a sheet of smouldering paper, the fire roaring in the grate.
Lettie nodded. The fact that it had nearly taken the house with it didn’t seem to occur to her.
‘Well, what d’you think?’
‘I think it’s a good blaze –’
‘About the girl next door?’
Terence frowned. ‘Maybe she’s shy.’
‘Oh yes, maybe that’s it,’ Lettie replied thoughtfully. Trust Terence, he could always get to the nub of the problem. ‘Perhaps I should call round on her.’
‘Best leave it at the moment,’ the oracle replied, puffed up with his own wisdom. ‘What’s for tea?’
Anna Hope was looking at her husband, Mr Hope. She never called him by his first name – no one did. It was Mr Hope to everyone, even to her, and that was fine. He was brushing down his old-fashioned suit and about to return to work, his stern expression never lifting as he then turned and examined the papers in his cheap briefcase. Church work. Or was it work for the Oldham MP? Anna wasn’t bothered, as long as it got her husband out of the house
In silence she waited until he had finished reading, cleared his throat and checked his image in the mirror. A dark moustache, neatly trimmed, gave him a faintly rakish look, quite at odds with his serious demeanour. The moustache had been the thing which had first attracted Anna to him, and the thing that had made her mother suspicious.
‘Never trust a man with a moustache,’ she had said warningly. ‘They chase the girls.’
Well, Anna didn’t like to contradict her mother, but Mr Hope wasn’t the type to chase girls; didn’t like them as a race, thought them flighty, empty-headed. Which was why he liked his wife. Anna was stern, unbending, a lady down to her corsets.
‘I’ll be home after seven,’ he pronounced, extending his cheek to his wife to be dutifully pecked. ‘Thank you for dinner, my dear.’
His accent was Northern, but affected in the vowels by many years of sucking up to richer, more powerful people. At thirty, Mr Hope had thought he would be someone; at forty he had started to get nervous; and at fifty he was now certain that he was doomed to the life of a gofer. Mr No Hope, Anna called him. But never to his face.
‘I saw the girl who moved into next door,’ Anna said suddenly. ‘Looks flighty.’
Mr Hope was pleased to hear it. After all, what would a decent girl be doing living alone?
‘I think you should stay away from her,’ he said warningly. ‘No point mixing with the wrong sort.’
Anna nodded, turned her wheelchair to the front door and let her husband out. She stood watching him until his stiff little figure had busied itself off round the corner and then moved back indoors, resting her ear against the adjoining wall to see if she could hear any signs of life from her neighbour.
At that moment Alice was sitting staring at an empty fire grate. She had sat there on and off for days, only moving to do the necessary functions of living. Otherwise she remained immobile and didn’t care what happened to her. The house had been rented by Victor, who was still working out his apprenticeship at Mr Dedlington’s. He had asked for an advance on his wage and was granted it – along with a warning that it was the first and last time.
The night that Alice had left Netherlands, Victor had followed, catching up with her in Dudley Street.
‘Wait for me!’ he had called after her, running to her side. ‘Alice, where are you going?’
‘Does it matter?’
Her face had been devoid of expression and his heart had shifted. The appalling truth – coming so cruelly – had shaken him, but it had not affected the way he felt about Alice. They would marry, he decided. It was sooner rather than later, but they could manage somehow. They would have to.
‘Alice, don’t run away from me. This changes nothing –’
‘It changes everything,’ she’d replied dully. ‘You don’t want me, not now.’
‘I love you.’
She had hung her head, weary with shock. ‘David Lewes. My father …’ She’d turned to Victor. ‘I have to find out more –’
‘Why!’ he had snapped, unusually impatient. ‘It’ll do you no good.’
‘So what do I do? Forget it? Forget what he said –’
‘It could have been a lie.’
Alice had shaken her head. ‘Oh no, that was no lie. Didn’t you see Clare Lees’ face? She’s known all along.’ Her voice had dropped. ‘I don’t know what to do.’
‘What! No, I have to work things out. I can’t let you carry me. You have to think about it, Victor, think about what I am. What this means.’
He’d caught hold of her and pulled her to him. ‘It means nothing. Nothing.’
So she had allowed Victor to lead her to Mr Dedlington’s house, where he’d knocked his employer – and his wife – up. They had been surprised to see the two young people on their doorstep, but too kindly to turn them away. Instead, the Dedlingtons had listened to Victor’s story and Mrs Dedlington had tut-tutted, put a blanket around Alice’s shoulders, and made tea. Mr Dedlington, who had been touched by the tale, had given Victor the address of a friend of his and by midnight the small house on Trafalgar Street had been opened up for them.
‘No funny business, mind you,’ Mr Dedlington had warned Victor as he’d been handed the key. ‘I won’t have my kindness thrown in my face. Your young lady can stay here – but you can bunk up on our couch until you’re wed.’
Victor had shaken Mr Dedlington’s hand. ‘You won’t regret this. I’ll make up for it.’
‘Well, see that you do,’ the older man had replied, not unkindly. ‘I’ll have Miss Lees down my back in the morning and if I’m to help you, you have to help yourself. It’s a messy business, lad.’
He nodded, but his voice was steady. ‘I’m going to marry Alice. Everything will work out, honestly it will.’
Mr Dedlington had looked into the young face and sighed. ‘Do you know about the Lewes case?’
Victor had shaken his head.
‘Well, lad, just so you’re aware what you’re getting yourself into … It were a long time ago, up at Werneth Heights. The Arnold family were very rich – big landowners – and the father had his fingers in more than one pie. He had two daughters, Dorothy and Catherine. David Lewes married Catherine. She was highly strung, very handsome, and they had two children –’
‘Alice,’ Victor had whispered.
Mr Dedlington had nodded. ‘Aye, Alice and a boy. I never knew his name. They were only little when the tragedy happened.’
Victor had been watching his face carefully. ‘What happened?’
‘David Lewes killed his wife one night and ran off. The girl was sent away –’
Mr Dedlington had shrugged. ‘Gossip said that she were too like her father to look at, and the old man wanted her out of the way. No reminders, like. Until now no one knew where she went.’
Victor had frowned, trying to take it all in. ‘What about Alice’s brother?’
‘He stayed with his grandparents. They brought him up at first, then his aunt – Dorothy – married and brought up the kid as her own.’
‘But how could they give away one child and not the other?’
Mr Dedlington had shaken his head. ‘Who knows? Maybe she were too like David Lewes. Anyway, the old man, Judge Arnold –’
‘He was a judge!’
‘Nah, it were just a name for him. He were on the bench, a magistrate, a right hard bugger. More clout than he should have had, but money bought him that. No one could touch the Arnolds, so after the tragedy the family closed ranks and moved away. Went abroad for a few years. Maybe old man Arnold thought that the girl was tarnished with the same brush as her father, so best palm her off. Get her out of the family once and for all.’
Staggered, Victor had looked at the older man. ‘But someone was bound to find out sooner or later?’
‘And do what? I’ve told you, the Arnolds had – still have – money and power. There’s no law that stops you giving away your granddaughter.’
‘But what about David Lewes?’
Mr Dedlington had shrugged his shoulders. ‘There were rumours flying round – he was mad, he was dead. Some said that the family had him sent out of the country. But no one knew for sure. No one ever knew. The case was scandalous, headline news – but only for a short while. Judge Arnold must have pulled some big strings, because it were hushed up fast. It was gossip all over town, all over the county one day. The next, silence. Whatever happened to David Lewes no one knows for sure. And if I know anything about old man Arnold no one ever will.’ Mr Dedlington’s wrinkled face had softened. ‘You know what you’ve got yourself into, lad, don’t you?’
Victor had nodded, his face set. ‘I think so.’
‘Well, my advice would be to let the past rest. Marry the lass and have your own children. Forget David Lewes and the Arnolds. Forget the past. There’s only misery there. Nothing else.’
When Victor told Alice what his employer had said he left two things out – that she had a brother and that no one really knew what had happened to her father. Better to let her presume that David Lewes was dead and that there had been no siblings. Otherwise he knew that she would never settle until she had found them.
But Alice was in no state to find anyone. And now she was staring ahead, remembering what Victor had told her and wondering when she would find the energy to live again. The terror and humiliation of her last night at Netherlands had shattered her, Clare Lees’ words stamping into her brain so deeply that Alice thought she would never stop hearing them – You should be in the dirt. That’s where you came from – and where you belong.
Victor was being so kind, Alice thought. He had put his head on the line and was certain that he had the future all mapped out. But she wasn’t so certain. Alice shifted in her seat, looking ahead. She had to get out and find a job, make money. It wasn’t fair that Victor was doing all the hard work. She was going to be his wife soon; it was her duty to help him.
Her duty … Alice rose to her feet and paced the tiny kitchen. The house was cramped, and damp from not having been used for months. What furniture there was had been second- or third-hand, culled from skips and house clearances. The surfaces, once polished, were dull, the only mirror fly-spotted and cracked over the blackened kitchen range.
The place chilled Alice to the soul. She would have to get out, go for a walk – do anything, but stop staring at the same bare floor and faded distempered walls. When Victor was there it was different; she could hold on to him and forget reality. But alone, the place swamped her.
Hurriedly Alice pulled on her coat and walked out into Trafalgar Street, scurrying past as she heard her neighbour open the door.
But she was too slow. Lettie Booth shouted out a greeting.
Reluctantly, Alice turned. ‘Hello.’
‘Oh, hello, luv,’ Lettie replied, the thick lenses of her glasses magnifying pale, weak eyes. ‘I were coming round to see you later. See you were all right.’
‘I’m fine,’ Alice said quietly.
‘Going for a walk?’
She nodded, tried to move off. But Lettie stopped her, too stupid to see that she didn’t want to talk.
‘I know what trouble’s like, been in plenty myself. Oh, not that I’m saying you’re in trouble. But if you were, there’s always a willing ear next door for you. You’re so young and so pretty …’ Lettie dropped her voice to a whisper. ‘You needn’t worry about clothes.’
Alice frowned. ‘What?’
‘Clothes,’ Lettie repeated dumbly. ‘I’ve still got my three’s baby things. In good condition – well, give or take a darn or two.’
Aghast, Alice was rooted to the spot. So that was what everyone thought. That she was pregnant.
Her voice hardened. ‘I’m not in trouble –’
‘Your secret’s safe with me,’ Lettie went on blithely, oblivious to the effect her words were having. ‘The baby can’t help its start, can it? I’m sure you’ll make a good mother.’
‘I’m not having a baby!’ Alice snapped, walking away. Then she turned back. Her voice was hostile. ‘And I’d appreciate it if you would tell everyone that. Tell everyone Alice Rimmer isn’t that kind of girl.’
Her anger was so intense that Alice didn’t realise what she was doing, or where she was going. Absent-mindedly, she boarded a bus and paid her fare, not even hearing what the conductor said to her. Instead her eyes fixed on the view outside. Then after a moment they moved to her reflection in the window looking back at her.
She was lost. Not on the bus, but everywhere. Her whole world had been shaken, like a pocket turned inside out. It was true that she loved Victor and wanted to be with him, but the cost had been so great. Humiliation burned inside her. How many people knew about her past? If Evan Thomas had found out, had he kept it a secret? Unlikely, Alice thought. He would have wanted to spread the dirt. ‘Gossip sticks like shit to a blanket,’ Alice had overheard Mr Dedlington say. And he was on their side. Others would be less charitable.
But then again, maybe there would be no need for Evan Thomas to tell anyone else. He had used the knowledge to damning effect and got what he wanted – Alice’s banishment and fall from grace. Why should he give her another thought? Carefully Alice studied her reflection in the bus window. Her face was a white oval, the dark eyes huge and sad.
The bus stopped suddenly, the conductor calling out, ‘End of the line, all off here.’
Surprised, Alice rose to her feet. ‘Where am I?’
The man looked at her suspiciously. ‘Now don’t take the mickey, there’s a good girl.’
‘Honestly, I mean it. Where is Union Street?’
‘You’re in Oldham, miss. In the town centre.’
She had come all the way from Salford to Oldham in a daze.
Slowly Alice got off the bus and looked around. She felt nervous, unused to the world outside and the people hurrying past her. How could she get back to Salford? Trafalgar Street? What bus should she catch? What tram? And besides, did she have enough money for the return fare?
Nervously she looked round, then noticed the large building a little way off. It looked official, important, and so Alice walked towards it, thinking to get directions there. It was only when she reached it that she saw written over the door ‘OLDHAM MUNICIPAL LIBRARY’.
She was about to turn away when a thought struck her. The library would hold all the local records for the area. Her feet moved quickly up the steps, her throat dry as she walked to the reception desk.
Two women – one extremely tall – were deep in conversation and ignored her.
‘… Well, I said – “You’re neither use nor ornament.”’
‘I did! And when he –’
Alice coughed. ‘Excuse me.’
Both women turned and gave her blank looks. ‘Yes?’ the tall one intoned.
‘I was wondering where the records were kept.’
‘We don’t have music here, luv,’ she said, laughing at her own joke. ‘Try the High Street.’
Alice could feel herself flushing, but held her ground. ‘I meant newspapers. Old newspapers.’
The shorter woman shrugged. ‘What d’you want them for?’
‘I want to look at them. Please.’
The tall woman sucked in her cheeks, her companion smiling.
‘What you looking for?’
Alice thought quickly and remembered a game she had played with the small children back at Netherlands.
‘We’re doing a project about how life was around here fifteen to twenty years ago.’
‘My mother could tell you that,’ the tall woman sneered. ‘And tell you the scandals too.’
‘So can I see the records?’ Alice persisted.
The woman looked her up and down. The girl was shabby, and no more than twenty. But for all of that she was a stunner. She would have liked to refuse Alice, but couldn’t think of any reason to do so. Instead, she reluctantly moved out from behind the desk and showed her to a cluttered back room off the main library.
One bony hand swept along a line of heavy-bound volumes.
‘This here’s all the newspapers since 1900. Well, in this area, that is. You know, like the Oldham Chronicle, the Manchester Guardian and the Manchester Evening News.’ She studied Alice carefully. ‘You a teacher?’
Alice kept her head down. ‘Training to be.’
What could she say? Alice wondered. She could hardly say Netherlands. She was no longer working there, and besides, everyone looked down on the home.
So she lied. ‘I’m learning to be a private tutor.’
‘Private tutor, hey?’ the woman repeated, suddenly at a loss for what to say. ‘Well, there you are. Have a good look, I’ll be back later. Oh, and don’t get fingermarks on the pages.’
Alice waited until the door had closed before she took down the first volume. It was heavy and dusty, beginning at 1900 and ending at 1910. Alice thought for a moment. She had been sent to the home when she was one year old, in 1911. So was 1911 the year that her mother had been killed?
Eagerly she pulled down the next book and flicked through the yellowing clippings. A woman with a dog was on the front page. The dog had saved her life … Alice flicked over. There was news of European countries, a long hot summer and heavy rainfalls in the East, but nothing other than trivia. She turned another page. An advertisement for Spencer corsetry and Pond’s Vanishing Cream leaped up from the page, but nothing more revealing.
Frowning, Alice took off her coat and pulled up a chair. Looking down she was suddenly aware of a hole in her thick stocking and hurriedly pulled it under her left foot. Then she went back to the book. She turned the page. She saw a face. Two faces. She stared.
The dimmest memory crept into her brain. A long dark stairwell, looking down on to a black and white floor, someone carrying her. And the smell of gardenia … Alice swallowed, staring at the man’s face and then looking to the caption underneath.
DAVID LEWES – murderer
The room heated up in an instant, as her eyes focused then blurred on the grainy newsprint image. Shaking, Alice held up the clipping and looked into her father’s face. There was no striking resemblance, but she could see some hints to her parentage in the dark eyes. He had been a handsome man, her father … Slowly Alice turned her eyes on the photograph next to his. Underneath it, read:
CATHERINE LEWES, daughter of ‘Judge’ Arnold, savagely murdered by her husband at the family home, The Dower House, Werneth Heights, 12 November.
Her hands trembling as she held the paper, Alice read on. Her mother had been butchered with a knife, her father was missing. She read the sentence twice. Then again. Her father had butchered her mother and run away … Alice could feel her pulse quicken and stood up, pushing the book from her. Her heart was banging in her chest. Faint, she leaned against the wall, then she walked over to the window and leaned out, gulping air. A man was walking with his small daughter, holding her hand and smiling.
Her hands went up to her forehead and massaged her temples fiercely. She had grandparents, so why had she been sent to the home? Why …? She wanted to know but at the same time was afraid of the truth.
After several minutes she turned and walked back to the newspaper cutting. She sat down, pulled the book towards her again, read on. Her grandparents had gone abroad after the tragedy, her grandmother suffering a stroke which left her a semi invalid. Her aunt, Dorothy, had been treated for shock, as she had been the one who had found her sister’s body. Alice scanned the next paragraph, looking for any mention of her. Finally there was a brief line – ‘David and Catherine Lewes had two children, who have been taken on by relatives.’
Taken on by relatives … Two children … Alice felt her heart pumping again. She was reading it wrong, she thought wildly. She must be. Everyone had told her that she had no relatives when she had been dumped in a home. And all along she had belonged to the Arnold clan. Finding it difficult to gather her thoughts, Alice remembered the titbits she had overheard over the years about the Arnolds. Ethel had talked about them occasionally, and Mr Grantley had often referred to them in obsequious tones. They were probably the richest family in Lancashire.
And all that money and power had succeeded in what? In wiping Alice off the family tree. She had been abandoned and forgotten. Given away. It was a bitter blow. Alice tried to swallow the anger she felt. Why would they cast her off? And not just her. She had a sibling. So where was he or she? All the time she had believed that she was alone, they could have been together. It was cruel enough to cut off the children, but to separate them too – that was unforgivable. Hurriedly Alice read through the remainder of the report and then moved over to an article in the Manchester Evening News.
This report went further into the background of the Arnolds. Their power and influence, the old man’s ruthlessness in business. Apparently Judge Arnold had had few friends, but many enemies … His photograph repelled Alice: Judge Arnold had squat features, almost coarse, with unruly grey hair and flat, unreadable eyes.
Coldly she stared at the photograph and then looked at the picture of the murder house. It was huge and impressive, but sombre. In the photograph it looked as welcoming as Netherlands, with only the gardens to soften its stern walls. God, she thought, they had real money. And they had given her away. Let her live meanly whilst they lived in luxury.
But why did they give her up? Alice wondered again, shattered by another rejection coming so soon upon the last. Why couldn’t they just keep her at a distance? Let her keep her name at least? But no, Alice thought, looking with hatred at old man Arnold – no, he had taken everything away from her, given her a commonplace name, and no history. He had blamed her for her mother’s death as surely as though she had committed the murder herself.
Alice jumped as the door opened behind her.
‘You finished?’ the tall woman said, trying to see what Alice had been reading.
Nodding, Alice closed the book and stood up. ‘Thank you very much.’
‘Did you find what you were looking for?’
Alice glanced down, afraid that her face might give her away. ‘I found a lot of things I didn’t know before,’ she answered honestly.
The woman walked past her, then slammed the books back on the shelf, sighing noisily. ‘That’s the thing about history. Always full of surprises.’
The family had returned to the house at Werneth Heights, Oldham two months earlier, but before long Mrs Arnold and her daughter, Dorothy, would be off again to winter in the sun. Somewhere in France, although no one outside the family knew exactly where. Old man Arnold liked to keep his life, and that of his family, private. He also liked to have time to himself, so he encouraged Alwyn and Dorothy to go away each year. After all, he wasn’t left alone.
There was Dorothy’s husband, for a start. Poor stammering Leonard, left with the old man of whom he was terrified. Ten years earlier Leonard Tripps had been introduced to Dorothy Arnold by mutual acquaintances. He had been smitten at once. She was handsome, easy to fall in love with. Her father had been another matter …
Leonard watched the old man unfasten his jacket and sit down at his desk in the den. He liked to think that he had won Judge Arnold over by his personality, but he knew he was fooling himself. His family’s fortune was what had cemented the alliance between the Trippses and the Arnolds, an impressive rubber business being far more appealing that any of his personal virtues.
Their marriage was a great – though private – event in Oldham, and Leonard never once complained about taking on the upbringing of his wife’s nephew, Charlie. He never complained because it would have done him no good; Dorothy had taken over the care of her nephew since her sister’s death and thought of him as her child. What could Leonard say in the face of such commitment?
The tragedy which had left Charlie homeless was seldom referred to, but Leonard was well aware of the background. He knew that Catherine and David Lewes had had a daughter too – a baby, very much her father’s pet. So much so, that when he killed the child’s mother Dorothy could no longer stand the sight of her niece and had her sent away.
Years earlier, whilst the event was still fresh in some people’s mind, Leonard wondered if anyone realised how great a part Dorothy had played in the banishing of her dead sister’s child. He supposed that they did not, instead jumping to the conclusion that it had been Judge Arnold’s decision. After all, people would never believe that the gentle Dorothy would do anything so callous. But Judge Arnold didn’t give a damn what people thought – ‘If they want to make me out to be even more of a monster, let them. I should worry.’
Startled out of his reverie, he looked over to his father-in-law. ‘Y-y-yes, sir?’
‘I’m wondering where Charlie is.’
Leonard smiled weakly. Charlie would be up in his room, writing. Charlie was convinced that he was borderline genius, and his grandparents and Dorothy had encouraged the delusion. Yet Charlie’s historical plays – so interminably long and so frequent – were, to Leonard, a subtle, innovative form of torture. He believed with all his heart that if the Army had had the use of Charlie’s literary ramblings in the war, the Germans would have surrendered at the second paragraph.
‘I t-t-think he’s upstairs, writing.’
‘Good boy,’ Judge Arnold said approvingly. ‘I always wonder where he got his talent.’
Leonard thought it came naturally, like belching, but simply smiled. What could you say about the favourite which wouldn’t sound like sour grapes? In fact, despite himself, Leonard had grown quite fond of Charlie over the years. He was spoiled, at times idiotic, but harmless. Fun, if you caught him in the right mood. Short, swarthy and even-featured, at twenty Charlie was good-looking without any sensuality – not like his father or his mother, more like a collage of all the Arnolds.
Leonard stretched out his legs before him, relaxing. Then he saw Judge Arnold look over and sat upright again. He wondered, for the thousandth time what his father-in-law’s Christian name really was. Then he smiled to himself. Maybe the old tyrant was called Cecil, or Hector.
‘What’s so funny?’
Leonard shook his head. ‘I w-w-was just r-r-remembering a joke,’ he said deftly.
‘So let’s hear it then.’
Leonard hadn’t been in the Arnold family, under the same roof, without having learned to be quick on his feet. His speech might judder like semaphore, but his brain was nimble enough.
‘The joke g-g-goes like this,’ he began. ‘What is the difference b-b-between a duck and a solicitor?’
Judge Arnold thought for a moment, then waved his hand impatiently. ‘I don’t know – what is the difference between a duck and a solicitor?’
‘You can’t tell a s-s-solicitor to stick his b-b-bill up his arse,’ Leonard said triumphantly.
He had the satisfaction of seeing the old man’s face slacken and then burst into laughter.
‘Bloody funny, Leonard! Bloody funny!’ Judge Arnold said approvingly. ‘I’ll tell them that at the club tonight.’
Turning back to his desk, Judge Arnold was soon immersed in work. Watching him, Leonard thought about Charlie, and then his own son, Robin. He missed him, always did when he was with Dorothy, but she would insist on taking him away with her for the summer.
‘The heat is good for him,’ she’d say. ‘Honestly, darling, I know what’s best for our baby.’
Leonard didn’t like to tell her that what was best for their baby was spending equal amounts of time with both parents. To another woman he could have said, ‘No, you stay at home with me and we’ll go away together when I have free time,’ but how could he say that to Dorothy?
The old man had made it clear from the first. Dorothy had suffered profoundly. She had found her murdered sister’s body – what greater shock could any woman ever have? To find Catherine hacked to death was enough to turn a person’s mind. It was to her credit, Judge Arnold had said, that Dorothy was strong enough to recover. From now onwards, they would have to see that her life was lived on an even keel. God knows, the old man had gone on, things had been terrible for a while. Straight after the murder the whole family had gone abroad, and only gradually could they face the house again – and the memory of Catherine’s death.
So Dorothy was treated gingerly, her life kept as sweet as possible. If she ever thought of the murder – and Leonard had suspected many times over the years that she had – it was not to him that she turned. It was to the old man.
Three generations were under one roof, all ruled by him. And yet, Leonard thought, each of them, even the four-year-old Robin, lived separate lives. They might share some of the same rooms, and occupy the same address, but there was a distance between them which was eerie. Perhaps, Leonard mused, there was so much horror in the past, everyone had suppressed his or her feelings so much, that there was no elasticity of spirit any longer. Too many dark comers and hidden memories had culminated in a family living together, but emotionally apart.
Leonard could endure it, but he didn’t want the same for his son. Dorothy would spoil the child too much, Robin would end up like the friendly and foolish Charlie, and Leonard didn’t want that. He knew he was a weak man himself, but he didn’t want his son to be the same. Money and power were Robin’s birthright, but he needed something else – judgement and compassion.
Dorothy had suffered, yes, but she had acted ruthlessly with regard to her niece. Leonard would never forget that, nor condone it. Besides, her parents should have forbidden the action. The child was not to blame for its birth, nor for not being the favourite.
Leonard had always suspected that there was more to it, and knew from something Alwyn had once said – in a rare unguarded moment – that the baby had rejected Dorothy and cried incessantly for her father. Charlie had taken to Dorothy at once, but not the infant girl. How like his wife, Leonard thought, to punish the child for disliking her.
As he sat there musing, a sudden and strange sensation came over Leonard. He realised with astonishment that if he never saw his wife again he would hardly miss her. But he would miss his son. He would definitely miss his son …
Sighing, he rose to his feet and walked out. And his father-in-law watched him go – just as he watched everyone.
Mr Dedlington was uneasy, hanging around Victor as he finished off planing a bookcase. Aware of his scrutiny, Victor was unexpectedly clumsy, scratching the mahogany surface and hearing a sharp intake of breath behind him.
‘Sorry, Mr Dedlington. I can fix it.’
‘Lad, I wanted a word with you.’
As Victor turned round, his employer glanced away. Victor knew the look – bad news was coming.
‘What is it?’
‘I’ve had a visit, lad, from Miss Lees.’ A pause, long enough to let the name do its damage. ‘Look, I have a business to run, and I rely on Netherlands to supply me with apprentices. I always have done. My father did before me. It’s an arrangement I’ve had with the home for years now.’
‘Isn’t my work good enough?’ Victor asked, knowing that it had nothing to do with his skill. No, he thought to himself, don’t you turn against me. Please.
‘It’s not that, Victor. It’s just that the arrangement with your young lady is not respectable –’
‘We’re getting married, and you know there’s nothing wrong in it. I sleep here, on your couch every night.’
Mr Dedlington waved aside the objection. He didn’t like the situation he had been forced into, but he had no choice. He had a business to run, a wife and family to support. Victor Coates wasn’t his responsibility. He had given the lad a chance, what more could he be expected to do?
‘It’s like this, Victor. You have to leave my employ – unless you part company with your young lady, and then you’re welcome to stay and finish your apprenticeship.’
Victor blinked, stung. ‘What?’
‘It might be for the best.’
Laying down the plane, Victor stared at the older man.
‘How could it be for the best?’
‘I’m not sacking you, lad; my argument’s not with you.’
‘But with Alice?’ Victor countered shortly. ‘What’s she ever done to hurt you?’
‘Nothing,’ Mr Dedlington snapped, rubbing his forehead with his stubby hands. ‘The world’s not fair, lad. Things don’t work out the way we want.’ His voice dropped. ‘They’ve got me over a barrel, Victor. If you don’t break it off with Alice, you can look for work elsewhere.’
Victor stared at Mr Dedlington and saw him colour. He had thought it was such a kindness for his employer to help him, to find them the house to rent on Trafalgar Street. Mr Dedlington had loaned him money – a debt which had yet to be repaid – but having supported the couple so willingly it was a bitter blow that he was now turning on them.
‘I can’t give her up.’ Sickened, Victor heard his voice harden.
‘Then you lose your job,’ Mr Dedlington replied, ‘and you owe me money, Victor. Don’t forget that. A debt’s a debt.’
‘I’ll pay it back!’
‘If you leave, I want the money on the day you leave.’
Victor stared at him, stupefied. ‘You know I can’t do that! I don’t have any money.’
‘So keep your job.’
It was blackmail, Victor realised. Neither he nor Alice had really escaped Netherlands. Clare Lees was still pulling the strings, still determined to get even with the protégée who had betrayed her.
‘I can’t give Alice up,’ Victor repeated. ‘What would happen to her without me? I love her, I can’t abandon her.’
‘She could get a job, she’d cope. Other woman do it all the time,’ Mr Dedlington said sharply. He was in the wrong, and knew it. His guilt made him defensive. ‘There are enough jobs going in this town. She’ll not starve.’
‘What possible good would it do you for me to break up with her?’
The older man stared Victor in the face. ‘I’ve told you. I’ve a business to run. I’m not your father; I don’t have to mollycoddle you, or your girl. Life’s hard, Victor –’
Furiously, Victor threw down his plane and snatched up his coat. At the door he turned and looked back to his employer.
‘I know life’s hard! It always has been for me – and for Alice. Nothing came easy to either of us, but I would never have let down someone in trouble.’
Mr Dedlington was stung by the remark and turned away from the accusing look in Victor’s eyes.
‘You either report for work tomorrow and tell me that it’s over, or you don’t come back at all. And you’ve a debt outstanding, don’t forget that. The choice is yours. But remember, Victor, there are many lads who would like your job. That girl’s trouble. She came from trouble and she’s already caused you plenty. Think on that you’re not taking on too much to handle.’
Twenty minutes later Victor let himself into the house in Trafalgar Street. The cool damp air hit him as he entered and, looking round, he saw for the first time how really gloomy the place was. He hadn’t noticed when they first came; had been too caught up in the excitement. But now he saw it as others did – as Alice must.
He missed her with sudden, hard longing. Life without Alice, without coming to see her, without dreaming of their future together – that wouldn’t be a life. He would starve, die for her, die with her. But leave her? Never.
Calling out for Alice, Victor walked into the kitchen. The room was tidy. Lately she had spruced up the tired little house, bringing in flowers and lighting a small fire in the grate. She had even propped up some cheap postcards on the mantel, trying to make it look as though it was their home, as though they had had a history together.
His heart shifting, Victor then noticed a plate, covered by a cloth, laid out for him. Beside it was a note.
I have gone out for a while, but will be back soon. Your supper’s ready for you.
Loving you, always, always, always,
Touched, he lifted the cloth. She had made him sandwiches, cut into delicate shapes, a bar of cheap toffee lying next to them. His favourite. The sight moved him so much that he sat down, staring at her note. He couldn’t live without her, he wouldn’t live without her. They would survive. He would find another job, it would work out.
The sound of the door opening brought him back to his senses. Walking in, Alice smiled at him.
‘Hello, love. Have you just got in?’
How could he live without hearing that voice, seeing those eyes? It was absurd. Let her out of his life? She was his life.
She touched his cheek. ‘You look worried, what is it?’
But she knew him too well to be fooled. Two orphan children, they had bonded to each other so completely that their thoughts and emotions were read as easily by each other as someone else would read a newspaper.
‘Come on, Victor, tell me.’
He settled her on his lap. ‘There’s a problem at work …’
‘No!’ she said anxiously. ‘You love it there.’
‘It’s nothing I can’t handle.’
She wasn’t fooled; felt the lie. ‘Victor, what is it?’
‘Nothing. Honestly nothing.’
‘What is it?’ she repeated.
‘Mr Dedlington’s been … He’s seen Clare Lees.’ Alice’s eyes fixed on Victor anxiously. ‘She came to see him – and said that it would be better for his business if we broke up.’
Alice said nothing. She had hoped to come home and be able to talk about what she had discovered. About the fact that she had a sibling. She had wanted to tell Victor that it was all true. She had come from a fortune, from a great family – just as she had always imagined. She had wanted to tell him that Judge Arnold had seen his granddaughter put away. In fact, she had wanted to cry about it and let Victor tell her that it was all right, because they had each other. She wanted to know that she wasn’t alone.
But now she looked at Victor and realised that his life and career were about to penalised because of her. He would lose his job if he stayed with her, and all the future prosperity he looked forward to. His talent would be wasted. And why? Because he loved her. Victor Coates, honest, hard-working Victor loved Alice Rimmer, the offspring of a murderer. The carrier of bad blood.
It was not going to end, or be forgotten, Alice realised. She had suspected as much when she first heard the truth from Evan Thomas’s lips. Indeed, her first instinct had been to run out of Victor’s life, but he had stopped her. And now what had happened? His job was at stake because of her. And how many other jobs, other opportunities, would be lost because of her? Would Victor spend his life forever held back by the woman he loved?
And would any love last under such pressure? Alice felt her eyes fill but bit her lip hard to stop herself crying.
‘I’m not going to leave you,’ Victor said firmly. ‘I would never do that.’
‘You need your job. You’ve been Mr Dedlington’s apprentice for years. You’re going to finish your apprenticeship before long, Victor – be able to make some real money. If you lose that, what else is there for you? A job in the mill? Gasworks?’ She shook her head. ‘No, you deserve that job. It was the first good thing that happened to you.’
‘And you were the second,’ he replied, lifting her hand and kissing the tip of each finger. ‘How could I give you up, Alice? How could I work and sleep and think without you?’ His grip tightened on her hand. ‘You and I are a pair. We only have each other.’
‘It’s because of who I am,’ Alice said quietly, her voice dull. ‘Mr Dedlington’s old enough to remember what happened nearly twenty years ago – how many others are?’
‘It’s old news. People forget. No one else knows –’
‘Clare Lees and Evan Thomas know,’ she replied evenly, then dropped her head. ‘I’m not lucky for you, Victor. Nothing’s gone right since you met me.’
Helplessly he buried his face in her neck. ‘Don’t say that! You’re everything to me, Alice. We only have each other. I don’t care about the job, it’s not important. I just want you.’
Tenderly she kissed the top of his head, her eyes wandering to the corner of the room and resting on an old table. It was rickety, badly made, crude. Victor would never make anything like that, she thought. He created beautiful things, objects which rich people would buy. His hands could earn him money, raise him in the world. She could only hold him back.
Her gaze stayed on the chair, her heart closing down. She could see the images in the old newspaper clippings – her mother, her father, Judge Arnold. She could have been someone – not an orphan, patronised into submission. But it was worse than that: she wasn’t just a foundling, she was damned, marked out by her father’s actions. And how much of him was in her? She knew how excitable, how fired up she could get; knew how anger burned inside her, how she raged inwardly. It had even frightened her sometimes. When she was growing up she had thought that others must feel the same, but they didn’t. Ethel and Gilbert didn’t. Victor didn’t. Only she.
And why was that? Because she was like her father? She didn’t know, but she was afraid that she might be. Did she really want Victor to suffer for her? To lose out? Worse, did she ever want to look at him and see that he had become wary of her? Or, God forbid, frightened? And even if that never happened, would he grow to resent her for hindering him? No, Alice thought desperately, no, Victor. I love you too much to risk that.
Infinitely gentle, she nuzzled his hair and drank in the scent of him. She committed it to memory, so that she would never forget it. Love was not going to save her; it was not going to be that simple. Her life was not going to follow a calm route. At Netherlands, they had been separated by iron railings. Outside, in the real world, it was the iron will of one woman who was separating them again.
Clare Lees. Alice shuddered, her chest hollow, empty. Silent, Victor held on to her, their bodies fitting together so perfectly, so tenderly, as they had always done. Clare Lees. And Judge Arnold. Clare Lees, Judge Arnold … Alice repeated the names in her head and stared blankly at the chair in the corner whilst deciding on the course of action which would change her life for ever.
The weather abroad had proved too hot for Alwyn so the family had returned to The Dower House, Werneth Heights, earlier than usual. Leonard was delighted, throwing his son into the air and greeting his mother-in-law politely.
‘You look well.’
‘I’m in a wheelchair!’ Alwyn snapped back. ‘No one looks well in a wheelchair.’
Turning away from Leonard, she beckoned for her husband to come over. He did so at once, bowing mockingly to her, Alwyn’s smile making a woman out of her, instead of some handicapped martinet.
‘Miss me, Judge?’
He pinched her cheek and then pushed her chair over to the window. The garden was cool, coming into its winter mood, the bushes darkly sombre.
‘I thought of putting a Christmas tree in the middle of the lawn.’
‘It’s only October,’ Alwyn replied, but she was glad that her husband was trying to please her.
God knew how long it would last. Soon he would get bored with her, and turn to the grandchildren for amusement. She would then long for the balmy foreign nights away from the Northern cold. She would grow bored and homesick – and then settle again, after November had passed.
Thoughtfully Alwyn watched as her husband moved away and picked Robin up. He could take anything in his stride, she thought. He had had to. People admired a man who was tough, a man who didn’t crumble under pressure. Not like some. Any other man would have folded, but not him. He had kept the family together. And he always would.
Suddenly aware of her scrutiny, Judge Arnold turned round to his wife. He had to admit that she was a strong woman – he liked that about her – but she was deep. Oh yes, she was deep all right. Not one to show her feelings, not one to let you know what she was thinking. But affectionate. In the right place and at the right time. He couldn’t have done with some clinging, whining woman hanging on his arm. Mind you, no one like that could have coped with what had happened to their family.
It was a shame that she had had that stroke, but the doctors had been baffled by her incomplete recovery. She should have been back to normal long ago, they said, certainly out of the wheelchair. But Judge knew that the chair was his wife’s support. She had mentally withstood a tremendous amount, but something had to take the strain. With Alwyn, it was never going to be her brain, but her legs.
‘Why did you come back early, Alwyn? What was the real reason?’
‘It was hot.’
‘You’re a lizard; it has nothing to do with the heat.’
She glanced up at him coolly with her deep blue eyes. ‘I missed the shops.’
‘They have shops in France,’ he said calmly.
He never begrudged her spending. After all, they had money enough to buy anything Alwyn fancied. Besides, he was a generous man, when all was said and done. Liked his family to have the best. It looked good to his competitors, showed them that the business was doing well.
‘What brought you back?’ he asked again.
This time, she answered him honestly. ‘I want to talk to you about Dorothy –’
He cut her off. ‘No!’
Breathing in deeply, Alwyn stared at her husband. She saw a man with heavy brows and a deeply lined face topped by a shock of wiry hair, now greying. She saw hardness in his face and resilience – the things she admired. But not now. Now she was worried about their daughter and she wanted to talk to him about it. It would do him no good to pretend that everything was all right. Dorothy was restless again.
‘We have to talk –’
‘I said no!’
‘Oh, save that tone for your workforce!’ Alwyn snapped back. ‘You can’t intimidate me.’ Her hands smoothed her hair as though she was soothing her own temper. ‘Dorothy is upset. She’s been distant, uncommunicative. I wanted her home for November.’
Judge Arnold flinched.
‘You know what it means,’ Alwyn replied calmly. ‘Memories don’t fade for some people. I thought she was over it, but now I’m not so sure. Oh, come on, we have to talk about it.’
But Judge Arnold had snatched up his paper and was pretending to read. His daughter was skittish … Jesus, just what he feared. But then Dorothy was always was a bit preoccupied when the year wound round to 12 November … His attention moved to the window. Bloody awful weather, he thought, seeing the rain outside. Unwelcomed, his thoughts slid back relentlessly to the past.
It had been raining that night too … His eyes closed against the memory, but it came anyway. David Lewes, his son-in-law. So good-looking it hurt your eyes, he used to joke. Came from a fine family in Huddersfield, a good match everyone agreed. His daughter fell in love with David almost as soon as she saw him. And he returned the compliment. Who would have worried to have David Lewes courting their daughter? He was attentive, kind, always loving. They had married one year after they met and ten months later they had Charlie. Two years after that … Judge Arnold closed his mind to the thought of the second child.
He could sense his wife’s unease, next to him, but didn’t open his eyes. The babies had been born in this house, at Werneth Heights. Away from prying eyes, from gossip. Two perfect children, born to two perfect parents. The house had been so big it had presented no problem for all of them to live under one roof. Catherine and her family had had one wing, he and Alwyn had had the other; shared it with Dorothy, their other daughter.
The rain slapped against the window, Arnold’s spirits dipping into melancholia as the memory took its toll … David had been under strain, overworking – nothing serious, but Catherine had been demanding, highly strung at times, and petulant with him. She had wanted all her husband’s attention, all the time. Had put him before their children, always.
It had been a bad winter that year too. Rain had come on rain, the streets greasy, the town flat with grey water. In the factories and workshops the winter had dragged on cold, the workers grumbling, David taking on more and more of the workload … Arnold shifted in his seat. Damn it, his son-in-law had asked for more responsibility! It hadn’t been foisted upon him. David had wanted it.
But wanting it and being able to cope with it were two different things, and before long David’s good looks had been mottled with lines and shadows. At times, even his natural kindness had been replaced with bouts of irritation. He’d become snappy, restless.
And Catherine had been so demanding. She had pleaded with him for more time, more money, more attention. Could he go away with her and the children? Could they buy a house of their own? She would be happy. No, he had told her, wisely, you would be lonely. So we’ll stay here, Catherine had countered. All right, all right … A day later she had been off again: I want to move. No, I want to stay. It would be better for the children if we lived elsewhere. No, it’s better for them here.
Make up your mind, David had told her, exasperated. Arnold had agreed with him. If you want to leave Werneth Heights, wait for a while until I get the new mill up and running and then I’ll have more time. We’ll move then …
Catherine had kissed him fiercely, moist eyes on his, a supple body pressed against his own, her own father embarrassed, turning away at the show of passion.
‘I love you David,’ she had whispered. ‘Love me, always love me, won’t you?’
Judge Arnold had beat a hasty retreat back to his own wing, but not before he had heard the uncomfortable sounds of lovemaking begin. Catherine’s urgency obviously irritated and excited David at the same time. Heat, passion and annoyance all pooling together on the other side of The Dower House.
Closing the connecting door, Judge Arnold had leaned against it. He could still hear his daughter’s hurried words. Love me always, David. Love me always. I couldn’t live without you. If you left me I would kill myself …
At dinner that night Catherine had been subdued, sated. David had talked business with his father-in-law. The storm had passed. Again. But Judge had felt the air pulse with tension and had glanced repeatedly towards his child.
‘What is it?’
Catherine had been luminously beautiful. ‘I’m so happy. So happy with my life.’
A shudder had fallen over his heart at the sound of the words …
‘Are you listening?’ Alwyn said heatedly, snapping the remembrance. ‘You looked miles away. The business with Dorothy is manageable, don’t worry. We can cope with it. We always do.’ Slowly she moved the wheelchair over to his seat and rested her hand beside his. Not touching, just lying side by side.
But the memory had unsteadied him. ‘Why did you bring Dorothy home? Why bring her here for the anniversary? I thought we’d agreed that this was the worst place for her to be then.’
Alwyn shrugged. ‘She asked me to bring her home.’
‘You didn’t have to agree to it!’
‘I couldn’t stop her.’
He shook his head. ‘It’s not right. It’s asking for trouble.’
Alwyn smiled at him as they exchanged glances. ‘We can handle trouble, my dear. We’ve had enough practice, after all.’
It was a cool evening as Alice caught the late bus from Trafalgar Street to the centre of Salford. Victor had fallen asleep in the chair and she had crept out, closing the door silently behind her. Pulling the collar of her coat up around her neck, she had gone to the end of the street, where she’d jumped on a bus. It had taken ten minutes to get to her destination, but now she was here, she was suddenly fearful.
Finally she knocked on the door. There was no response. She knocked again and waited. On the third knocking, she was rewarded by a light going on overhead and a woman in curling rags poking her head out of an upstairs window.
‘It’s Alice, Alice Rimmer.’
‘Oh, hello, luv,’ Mrs Dedlington replied. ‘I’ll come down.’
A moment later she was ushering Alice into the kitchen. From above came the sound of heavy snoring.
‘That’s our Gordon,’ Mrs Dedlington said smiling, ‘driving ’em home.’
‘I wanted to have a word with him,’ Alice said softly, ‘but if he’s asleep …’
Mrs Dedlington could see the distress on the girl’s face and led her to a seat. ‘What’s up?’
‘Victor has been told that he has to choose between me and his job.’
‘He what?’ Obviously Mrs Dedlington knew nothing about it.
Alice rushed on. ‘Miss Lees is putting pressure on him. Apparently Netherlands and your husband have had an understanding for years. She’s forcing his hand. I don’t want Victor to lose his job with your husband, Mrs Dedlington, I want him to stay – and he won’t if he’s forced to choose. So I’m going to prevent him having to make that choice.’
Mrs Dedlington was listening sympathetically, a comical figure in her hair rags. ‘What you going to do?’
Конец ознакомительного фрагмента.