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Chapter 1 appeared on 13 January and following chapters appear each Friday. You can find them via the archive.
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Wednesday 24th March
‘…Happy birthday to you.’
Abby seemed as much embarrassed as touched by our display. She blew out the candles on the cake Ma had baked and iced.
‘How old are you?’
She whispered, a secret, that she was twenty-two. ‘How old are you?’
‘I’ll be twenty one in a few months time.’
‘Twenty-one? What date, love?’ Ma seemed keen to know.
‘Some time in July or August, I think.’
Ma, Old Hodge, Abby and Leigh stared incredulously at me.
It was Leigh who asked. ‘You don’t know when your birthday is?’
‘Oh, I always put August the first on forms and things. But I don’t know the actual date.’
‘Have you never celebrated your birthday, love?’
‘Had a party?’
‘Been to a party?’
I shook my head as Ma and Leigh exchange glances. ‘You will this year.’
Ma reached across and enfolded my hand in hers. ‘Apart from that useless father of yours, who knows your birthday date?’
‘Mother, I suppose. And probably Charity.’
There was a moment of total silence around the table. ‘It’s Abby’s birthday. Shouldn’t we be concentrating on her?’
Abby leant across and kissed my cheek. It was nice, but nothing like being kissed by Leigh. ‘You’re a weird, peculiar, funny woman, Fay, but, honey, you’ve got a heart of gold.’
We toasted Abby in white wine and wished her health and happiness. I sipped the pale gold liquid in my glass and liked it, so drank the rest.
‘Nice?’ Leigh smiled in a slightly mocking fashion.
‘Not drunk wine before, have you, Fay?’
‘I do wish you’d call me Faith. And, no, I haven’t.’
Abby turned to Leigh. ‘You’ll not have such a straightforward time with this one, Leigh. Needs educating. And, obviously, she’s not into free love, or any kind of love, as far as I can tell. Won’t be sharing your bed for a long while.’
Leigh just grinned at my emphatic statement.
‘I mean it. Unless we were married, of course.’
I wondered why I had said that and whether I should have, but Leigh just smiled at me in that odd way he sometimes had and Abby, well, Abby shrugged her shoulders and stared at me as if she believed the exact opposite.
‘Once I’ve gone, you’ll be able to spend more time… Oh, it’s okay, Leigh, I knew you were working up to a split, but being the sentimental old fool you are, you didn’t want to tell me until after my birthday. I’m getting bored anyway; too easy to have my way with you. Time for pastures new. Des has been in touch and my liver’s hanging out for the cool of jazz and a spot of pot, so I’m scooting to his pad tomorrow.’
Leigh seemed not at all upset at her announcement, more disappointed in something else.
‘You’ve ditched the weed, Abby. Don’t take it up again for kicks, love, please.’
‘I’ve kicked the habit once, I can do it again. I ache for a fix, honey. Des is groovy but he doesn’t do it down below for me like you. Don’t begrudge me my lift.’
‘Suit yourself, Abby. But you know my views on coffin nails.’
She leant forward and squeezed his hand. ‘I know; Nosmo King rules here, okay. Relax, lover, it’s not going to happen to me. Anyway, what I propose for today, since I know you’ve nothing on, is…’
‘Not yet, but I’m sure he’ll be that way as soon as you’re ready.’ I blushed, horrified by what I had said. But they all just laughed as if I had cracked a joke.
‘As I was saying, I think you and I should have a final session on the project. You said you wanted me for the window cleaning shots. It’s a nice day, for the inside shots. And, now the walkers are on the scene, we might entertain them by using the French windows in the library.’
Abby turned to Ma and nodded. ‘If you’ve got it, flaunt it. They’ll not be able to identify me from the stile in the bottom field but they’ll be almost sure we’re almost naked and it’ll give them something better to talk about than their boots.’
‘Will you need me, Leigh?’
‘Doubt it. I’ll use natural light with reflectors, as I have for the rest of the project. If you wouldn’t mind bringing a couple in from the studio and taking them to the library...?’
I stood, confused for a moment, before shaking my head and leaving for the studio. I had no idea where to find the library. I shrugged; there were not many rooms to choose from after all.
Leigh’s final session with Abby in front of the camera lasted all afternoon; he was gathering pictures of part clothed or naked women doing housework for some sort of arty book he called ‘a coffee table book’, though I wasn’t sure what that was. I imagine they had carnal knowledge of each other as well.
The following morning, long after Leigh had left for Harrogate, Abby appeared in the office with her bags. I looked at her in her lemon crop top that hugged her breasts so closely that her nipples protruded. Lilac bellbottom hipsters fitted tightly to her thighs and buttocks. Her feet were shod in bright red platforms of glossy mock patent and her right wrist held a dozen assorted bangles that clinked as she moved.
She sauntered to the leather seat behind Leigh’s desk, sat down and lifted her feet onto the desk. ‘Call me a taxi, honey.’
‘Okay, you’re a taxi.’
‘Ho-di-ho. Positively antediluvian, sweetie.’
I ordered the taxi and asked for the destination, which Abby gave me. When I had finished on the phone, I stared across at the woman who had shared Leigh’s bed for as long as I had known him. ‘Aren’t you sad you’re going?’
‘Easy come, easy go. Leigh and I are free spirits. It’s been fun and the best sex ever. But all good things… In any case, and hear me here, Fay, never let a man get under your skin. They’re shits by and large. Leigh’s hip and fun and he screws with a rod of hot steel but he’s just a man. Get liberated, honey. Live your own life, get in the groove but make sure it’s your groove. Hey, man, lighten up and get easy.’
I shrugged. ‘I expect I might understand half of what you say eventually, Abby, but I wish you’d speak English.’ I wondered why she had suddenly taken to talking in this peculiar fashion but I knew better than to ask. ‘The taxi will be here in half an hour. I never realized you lived so far away; I always thought you were local.’
‘Fay, you’re so parochial; just the end. It’s only the other side of Garsington for Pete’s sake. Any case, I don’t live there, my pad’s over the other side of the Dale in Wharfsden. Where I’m going is this hip joint where a groovy guy who digs jazz and pot hangs out. He’s been freaked by me since the beginning, so I thought I’d just, you know, drop in and drop out for a while.’
I shook my head and wondered if it would be rude of me to get on with my work. Abby had other ideas.
‘Let me fill you in on some heavy news, honey. When the time comes to hone the bone the first time, don’t close the canyon and hold your breath. Just loosen up and welcome in the joy horn, breathe easy, pant, and ride it. That way it won’t hurt at all, I guarantee.’
I thought I had probably been given some valuable advice but was both too shy and too polite to ask for an explanation so smiled, nodded and said, ‘Thank you, I will.’
‘Final word. Leigh’s your guy for the first ride. He’s got hands that take you to the stars and he licks like for paradise. He’s the only guy I’ve had who not only knows what a clit is but doesn’t have to hunt it. Hits the spot every time.’
I became vaguely aware that all this was to do with sex. It was a concept outside my personal knowledge and experience, though I knew Abby and Leigh fornicated all the time and evidently enjoyed it. Now, it seemed, there was some strange, esoteric language involved. It was another reason to avoid an activity my father described as destructive and harmful as well as addictive.
The taxi arrived and I helped Abby load her bags onto the back seat as the driver sat inside, smoking. She got in and asked him what it would cost. It sounded a lot to me.
‘Flash the cash, honey. Leigh says to take it out of petty cash.’
‘I don’t think Leigh would expect me to pay for your taxi …’
‘Calling me a liar, honey?’
I had no idea what was best. In the end I thought I had better pay as she said and ask Leigh when he came back. I just hoped he would not be too cross if I had chosen wrongly. He could be funny about money sometimes.
When Abby had gone, I caught up with the paperwork so that I had finished before lunch.
In the kitchen, Ma opened the topic that had started the previous day. ‘Do you have anything to do with your mother, Faith?’
Old Hodge was at the table already and watching me with interest. I liked the Hodges; they were kind, warm and affectionate. They made me feel wanted and safe and valued. Father made me feel unwanted, unworthy, stupid and a burden. My mother… ‘I used to write occasionally but I never got a reply. Father says she’s a whore, but then he says all women are so I don’t suppose that helps. She left me behind when she took Charity because she thought me ugly and stupid. Charity’s grown up now; I’d like to meet her but I don’t know anything about her really.’
‘Just a thought; why not write to your mother from here and give Longhouse as your address? She’s bound to be curious. You could ask her when your birthday is, as well.’
‘Why should she reply here, Ma, when she never does at home?
Ma looked at Old Hodge. He took my hand and held it between both of his. His fingers were strong and gnarled but his touch was soft and welcoming. ‘What Ma’s suggesting, love, is that perhaps your Mum did reply but your father didn’t want you to hear what she had to say.’
‘Father would never…Oh!’ It had not occurred to me before. He always either met the post woman or demanded I give him the post unopened. Not that there was ever very much; a couple of large plain envelopes, quite heavy, with foreign stamps every month and others I assumed must be bills by his manner when he opened them. ‘Why would he not want me to know what she has to say?’
‘Perhaps he’s not always told you the truth?’
‘Father always tells the truth!’ I pulled my hand free from Old Hodge, startled by his accusation and expecting to feel an anger that never came. Instead, and unaccountably, I burst into tears. Old Hodge put his arm round me and uttered soothing words as he stroked my shoulders and back.
Afterwards, calm and collected again, I explained how Father’s behaviour during Leigh’s visit had unsettled me. He had seemed afraid of Leigh, deferential and condescending, even telling lies. This was so out of character for a man I knew as violently opinionated. Father, I explained was a difficult man, hard and sometimes brutal in his search for what he considered truth and duty and the true service of God. I always tried to do as he commanded but I had discovered things that made some of what he told me seem doubtful.
‘Father seems to hold opinions and beliefs that most other people don’t agree with. He’s always told me that other people’s views don’t matter because they’re all sinners and they’ll burn in Hell. But I look around me and I see good people, I see people who love and are loved, people who care, people who say and do things to make life better for others and I’m so confused and…’
‘Do you believe you’re stupid, Faith?’
‘Father does. Most people do.’
Old Hodge lifted the ever-present cap and scratched his bald head. He looked at Ma and apparently received the encouragement he sought. ‘You’re a bright, intelligent, young woman, Faith. Ma and I think so, and Leigh. And, by now, if you talk to most of the villagers, you’ll find they treat you with more respect.’
I had noticed people seemed to smile at me in the street and sometimes even spoke. ‘Why?’
‘Because,’ Ma told me, as she dished out the meal, ‘Old Hodge and I, and Leigh, have been telling them the truth. We’ve been undoing the years of lies put out by your father.’
‘Why, Faith, when you’re so obviously bright and clever, do you think folk call you an idiot?’
‘I’m ignorant and...’
‘Ignorant, maybe. Ignorant in the sense that you only know what your father’s allowed you to know. He’s spent your entire life telling people that you’re stupid. Tell people something often enough and they’ll believe it in spite of the evidence. Of course, your clothes haven’t helped.’
‘Why? Why would father do that?’
‘That’s something you’ll have to discover for yourself. One thing I do know, though and that is you’re not a fool, you’re not an idiot, you’re not stupid, Faith. You’re simply innocent and naive. And we can do something about that.’
When Leigh arrived home, rather later than expected, I was in the library. ‘Knew I’d find you in here if you weren’t in the office. Now you’ve discovered it, you can’t keep away, can you?’
‘I’m sorry, Leigh. I’d finished everything there was to do in the office and I thought I might be able to learn something of use in here, that’s all.’
‘Don’t apologize. In fact, from now on, you’re to spend some of every day in here. I want you to read as much as you can. If you finish your work early, come in here and pick up a book until I’m ready to take you home. It’s the only way you’re going to catch up on your education and increase your knowledge of the real world. It wouldn’t hurt if you watched a bit of telly, either. Trouble is you’re at home when the good stuff’s on. I’d love to see your reaction to some of the current sitcoms. I’m sure you’d find Frank Spencer amusing, and The Good Life. And Morecambe and Wise would definitely make you laugh.’
I had only had a glimpse of a television in operation, as I passed a cottage in the village. There was one in the sitting room, crouching in the corner between the fire and window, with its great grey screen staring into the room. I had no real idea what it held but most people seemed to enjoy it. Father was violently opposed to it and I wondered what wickedness it portrayed to deserve his severe sanction.
One day, perhaps, I would see some of what it had to offer and then I might judge for myself and decide whether Father was right or wrong. The significance of that thought hit me hard.
‘Are you all right, Faith?’
‘Is it normal for children to believe what they’re told by their parents?’
He sat opposite me. ‘Depends on the parents and the child, Faith.’ For a while, he struggled to make up his mind about something. ‘In your case, I can only say that you’re singularly more intelligent than your father. If you want my opinion, and you did ask me, I suggest you question and doubt everything he’s ever told you. And I do mean everything.’
It was too much, of course. I was steeped in Father’s opinions and rules and ideas. I had none of my own and precious little information to form any. But I had learned that Father’s view of the world was violently different from almost everyone else I knew. I looked about me and saw that most people had periods of contentment and even occasional happiness. Father was habitually morose.
On balance, whether he was right or wrong seemed not to be the point. I asked myself whether I wanted to be happy or miserable for the rest of my life and I knew the answer even as I posed the question. But that opened huge questions and threatened life-changing answers for which I was not ready.
I found myself seeking the mundane, the ordinary, in order to avoid the turmoil caused by my questions. ‘Leigh, Abby asked me to pay for her taxi out of petty cash. Was that all right?’
‘An enigma. That’s what you are, Faith Heacham. A puzzling, fascinating, exasperating, endearing, frustrating, attractive, idiosyncratic, marvellous enigma. And, yes, it was perfectly okay to pay for Abby’s taxi from petty cash. I suggested it, but I forgot to tell you. Sorry. Come on, little Miss Enigmatic, time I took you home to that monster of a father of yours. Though, God knows why you stay with him.’
His words so surprised me that I was incapable of speaking sensibly, so said nothing. I thought about how he had described me and what he had said about me staying with Father. That raised terrifying, exciting possibilities that made my head spin. I could not cope with such ideas and again sought refuge in my surroundings and things familiar.
Early spring sunlight dappled Leigh’s hair as we passed under the greening trees. I found myself looking at him and thinking how attractive he was. Another thought too disturbing to allow.
‘Ever been to York?’ His question came unexpectedly and startled me with its apparent irrelevance.
‘I’ve never been out of the Dale, Leigh. I’ve been to the village, Longhouse, and to a secret tarn up above the cottage. Nowhere else.’
He shook his head in disbelief, though our enthusiastic discussions of his landscapes must have revealed how little I knew of our local geography.
‘Warn your damned father you’ll be late home on Monday night.’
‘I think you’re more likely to be damned than Father.’
‘As likely, I suspect, but for different reasons.’
That raised more questions than I could face with my mind already whirling. ‘Why will I be late on Monday night?’
‘We’re going to York for the day.’
‘You’ve got a job in Leeds.’
‘You’ve promised George you’ll have the proofs ready for the calendar by last thing Tuesday.’
‘Nothing that won’t wait.’
‘Wednesday, then. We’re spending the day in York on Wednesday. I want you in your best togs. Be as adventurous as you like. And have a pair of stout town shoes as well as something for evening wear with you. Do your hair and put a face on. We’re going to do the town, you and I.’
I was excited and frightened. ‘Father won’t allow me home later than seven.’
‘Father will do as I say, if he wants you to stay in my employ and get paid. Try that on him. Your father understands the language of money, even if he’s deaf to every other normal plea.’
Leigh stopped at the village shop for me to collect bread and milk. It was such a habit now that he just did it as a matter of course, occasionally coming in with me to buy a magazine or paper or some of Ma’s favourite sweets. Mrs Greenhough was much more respectful to me now and I noticed she treated Leigh with great politeness even when he pulled her leg, which he did most of the time.
At the bottom of the steep track that led to the cottage, he stopped the car and got out to open my door.
‘Why are you taking me to York?’
‘Need a new typewriter. That old manual’s had its day. Time to invest in an electronic model, I think.’
‘Will that take all day?’
‘An hour, at the outside.’
‘Will it take us a long time to get there?’
‘It’s about an hour and a half each way, why?’
‘You said we’d be all day and not get home till late.’
‘That’s right. See you Monday. Have a good weekend.’
‘Aren’t you in tomorrow?’
‘Sorry, should’ve told you, but it only came up a short while after I got back. I’ve got to go and see someone over the weekend and I’ll be setting off early tomorrow morning. Family thing. Sort of emergency but I expect it’ll come to nothing. It usually does. Look, have the day off. Take a day’s holiday. Paid, of course.’
‘Thank you, Leigh, but I’d rather go to Longhouse.’
He looked at me for a long time. ‘If you must. But set off late and leave early. Spend your time reading. Better still; write that letter to your mother. I mean it. See you on Monday.’
And he returned to the car and drove off. He seemed rather distracted as he left for his family crisis. And I realized I knew very little about him and absolutely nothing about his family, except that he had once had an Uncle Fred who had lived in Longhouse.
I waited for the sound of his car to die away before turning to climb the rough track to the cottage. I was a little earlier than usual and hoped Father would be pleasantly surprised to see me.
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