You've come this far, so you don't need me blathering on with stuff you already know. Enjoy the read.
If you missed the start, here's the link to it: http://stuartaken.blogspot.com/2012/01/read-free-my-novel-here.html
Chapter 1 appeared on 13 January and following chapters appear each Friday. You can find them via the archive.
Read, enjoy, invite your friends.
Wednesday 31st March
We had travelled for half an hour in uncomfortable silence.
‘Have I upset you, Leigh?’
‘I don’t say much about the way you look at work, Faith, because I know you’ve no fashion sense and clothes are just covers to you. But I thought I’d made it clear today was a bit special. I mean, that dowdy old tweed skirt, a blouse that’d look better on your grandmother and those shoes that seem to be all you ever wear. And that’s hardly an evening bag, is it?’
‘I’m sorry I’m a disappointment. Perhaps you’d better take me back home.’
‘Don’t get all injured with me. I hoped you’d make an effort, that’s all.’
‘I did what I could. I took up the hem of my skirt as far as I dare, persuaded Father to let me have a bath and washed my hair last night.’
‘And that’s it?’
‘What else could I do?’
‘Oh, come on! A bit of make up? Your best dress or skirt? A pair of new shoes? I’m sure you could…’
‘Oh, you’re sure are you? It’s easy for you, Leigh. You have a wardrobe full of clothes. Several pairs of shoes. What I’m wearing is what I have, Leigh. I can’t do better than that. Unless you’d have me travel in the stuff I wear for housework? Or naked?’
His silence unnerved me but I had said enough. The day had started badly and now I had made it worse. I wished he had never suggested the trip out.
‘I’m sorry, Faith. I just assumed that… Well, you’re a young woman, earning a decent wage. I automatically assumed you’d have new clothes and make up. What else would you spend your money on?’
‘Father doesn’t work because of his back and because he has to stay home to care for Hope. My money goes into the housekeeping.’
‘All of it?’
Again, he was silent. The hostility had gone but his continued silence unsettled me. From Ma and Old Hodge I had learned some of the basic social skills my father had neglected. A change of subject might help.
‘I never said before, but the lift you gave me when you asked me to come back to work was the first time I’d been in a car.’
His silence persisted for a few seconds that seemed an eternity. ‘I’m an idiot. I’ve taken on a bright, gifted, generous and hardworking assistant and I know nothing about you. It’s so easy to take things for granted. So easy to assume. Faith, I need to know something of your personal history. I need to know more about you.’
It was my turn for silence. Where to begin?
‘Begin from your earliest memory and take me as far as you like.’
‘I was very young; perhaps not even four. Father was shouting at my mother. At the time, I’d no idea what caused the argument, but now I know it must’ve been when Mother finally accepted Hope would never be any different, would always be a baby. Father won’t see it. He still believes; he has faith that she’ll somehow miraculously emerge from her silent imprisonment and start to talk and walk and laugh and cry. Of course, she never will. But that was the beginning of a change that made my mother leave and abandon me when I was six.
‘I’d had my first year at school and was doing quite well, I think. In any case, I remember Mother praised me, cuddled and kissed me for my efforts. Then, one day, I was waiting for her by the school gates and she didn’t arrive. Father came at last, with Hope in her pushchair that was too small, and took me home. I haven’t seen my mother since.’
I gazed at the curling strip of tarmac flowing quietly beneath the car, unwinding as we drove over hills and vales as foreign as a distant land. Pictures of my childhood filled my mind and I was suddenly aware that Mother took all joy and laughter with her. All the days since then were grey.
‘Don’t dream it, Faith, tell me. I can’t hear your unspoken memories.’
‘Sorry. I just discovered something very sad.’
‘When my mother left, she took all the colour with her. Father only works in black and white, mostly black.
‘Don’t grow all lyrical and metaphysical on me. Now isn’t the time for poetry. Just tell me what happened.’
‘I went to school for one more day, but Father either wouldn’t or couldn’t take me after that. He was supposed to teach me at home. At any rate, when I was about thirteen, someone came to check and he persuaded her, with my help, that he was teaching me well enough. I’d started to learn to read before school and I was quick enough to learn the rules of language so I could read well very early.
‘There was an atlas, a history of the world, an old encyclopaedia and a dictionary in the house. Father had been through them with a thick black pen, crossing out words and paragraphs. There were entire pages missing from the encyclopaedia. There was the Bible, of course, and some books of sermons by eighteenth century clerics.’
‘You had no television, I know. Radio?’
‘Father says they’re instruments of the Devil, won’t have them in the house. Same with newspapers and magazines. I’ve seen those at Mrs Greenhough’s, of course, and I can understand why Father rejects a lot of them. All that flesh and talk of sex. It’s as if nothing else matters in the world.’
‘I know you’ve only travelled within a few miles of home, so all this is new to you?’ He waved a hand at the passing countryside with its flat fields and huge sky.
‘If I had to get out of the car now, I wouldn’t even know which way to go to get back home.’
‘Any idea how far you are from home, Faith?’
‘About ten miles?’
Leigh chuckled. ‘Sixty. Another ten and we’ll be in York. One thing you can teach me regarding local geography; you once mentioned a small tarn above your cottage. I don’t know of it. Is it far?’
I smiled secretly. ‘It’s my refuge. Small but quite deep in places. It’s where I go to be alone. I discovered it one day when Father wanted me to get some fresh air and sent me off for a few hours in the summer. Later on that same summer, it’s where I learnt to swim, almost by accident.’ I was too ashamed to tell him I had been trying to drown myself because my life was so miserable.
‘I’d like to see your tarn, Faith, like to see you swimming.’
‘I bet you would! But you’re not going to.’
‘Hey, no need to get all haughty. I’m not suggesting anything improper. Your swim suit would cover your...’
‘People don’t wear suits to swim. You’re pulling my leg again, Leigh. I’m not that daft. They’d get all wet and drag you under the water.’
‘No, really, it’s a special sort of…’ He realized the import of my words even if I did not. ‘You swim nude?’
‘Of course! Doesn’t everyone?’
‘But I thought you believed it was immoral to be naked?’
‘Only in public. I don’t wear anything in the bath or in bed, so why should I wear anything to swim? There’s never anyone about. No footpaths for walkers. And I’d hear a farmer with his dogs or tractor in plenty of time.’
‘But not a peeping tom.’
‘What’s a peeping tom?’
‘Doesn’t matter. Are there trees at the tarn, or nearby?’
‘There’s a small copse of mountain ash at the southern end, a few rocks along the western shore. Why?’
‘The farm where Merv lives with his father and brothers hugs the slopes on the other side of the hill above your cottage.’
This had nothing to do with what we were talking about. ‘I know; horrible family.’
Leigh grunted. ‘That explains that.’ He was silent for a while. ‘Apart from teaching yourself your many skills, keeping house for your father, nursing Hope and cleaning that barn your father calls a chapel, what else do you do?’
‘Read and sleep mostly; of course, I only have the books Father thinks are suitable.’
‘Does your father actually do anything at all?’
‘He has a back problem. He can’t lift anything or even walk far without pain. He hides it very well, though. Some people believe there’s nothing wrong with him, but that’s because he’s so brave and uncomplaining.’
‘Or such a good actor.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘No matter. We’ll be in York in a few minutes. After we’ve found somewhere to park, and that’ll take half a day, we’ll go for coffee and then find our new typewriter. Once that’s out the way, the rest of the day is ours to have a bit of fun, do some sightseeing, okay?’
‘Sounds exciting. Is it a very big place?’
‘You know we passed through Hawes earlier on?’
‘That big market town?’
‘That big market town is a very small market town. Think of fifty of them packed together, add a few buildings four or five storeys high and you’re getting near to the size of York. And York’s not a particularly big place.’
I shook my head and let him have his joke on me. I would discover the truth when we arrived.
‘There is one thing, Faith.’
‘I want no argument about what I’m going to say. No refusals, no fuss. Today is a treat for you, for me as well, but mostly for you. I’m going to spend some money on you, buy you a few presents, treat you. Okay?’
He opened his mouth to speak and then shut it again and drove in silence for a few moments. ‘Faith, you’re extraordinary. Any other woman would’ve started suggesting things I might buy her. You just want to know why. I’m having to learn a whole new set of rules in dealing with you.’
‘You’re having to learn?’
‘Okay, fair point. Anyway, as to the “why?”, it’s quite simple. You earned me a great deal of money with your handling of those bad debtors and....’
‘I was just doing my job.’
‘Faith! I want to reward you. I want to buy you something. I want to do it, I can afford to do it, and I’m going to do it. Is that clear?’
‘Yes, Mr Longshaw, sir.’
‘Good. And don’t be so cheeky.’
‘Mmm. In a couple of minutes, we’ll be on the outskirts of the city. You’ll begin to see what I mean about the size of the place. Do I have your word that you won’t argue about the presents I want to buy you?’
‘What will you expect in exchange?’
‘I’m sorry, Leigh. It’s just that Father said I…’
‘Your bloody father’s got a lot to answer for. And he’s wrong. Not all of us expect to be paid with sex for presents. Not all men expect a girl to whip her knickers off for the price of a dress or a piece of jewellery. Some men like to give women presents because they like to give women presents. I like to give women presents. I expect and require nothing in return. Not even your gratitude. Do I make myself clear?’
‘I keep making you angry and disappointed. I’m sorry. There’s so much I don’t know and almost everything I do know has come from Father. His views differ so much from those of most other people. Thank you for your offer, Leigh. I accept gladly and I’ll try my best not to embarrass you.’
Leigh took his hand from the steering wheel, found mine and squeezed it gently. ‘Thank you. I’ll try to remember you’re an innocent with a fanatical puritan hypocrite for a father. Here comes York.’
We were travelling in a long queue of traffic. Leigh had called Father a hypocrite and I worried about that for a moment, especially when I remembered Mrs Greenhough had said the same thing. But then the volume of traffic and the buildings took my attention instead. In fact, there were more cars visible from my seat than I had ever seen in the space of a single day before. And houses lined both sides of the street; a street that seemed to go on forever. Where did all those people go when they wanted to be alone?
There were so many people on bicycles; so many people on foot. Men with beards and flared colourful trousers, men wearing shorts and coloured vests, women with skirts as short as Abby’s, some even shorter, some a lot longer, women with bare shoulders and necklines that made their breasts obvious. People in all sorts of clothes, people with different coloured skins, people of all shapes and sizes. And a huge stone wall with an arched gateway and towers. And so many shops I could not count them. It was amazing, exciting, frightening, fascinating, wonderful, alarming, incredible.
We drove into an open space that seemed big enough to hold my entire village and Leigh parked the car amongst hundreds of other cars in an area that seemed to exist only for that purpose. He switched off the engine and laughed at me. ‘Close your mouth, Faith, you’ll catch flies.’
‘It’s… everything’s so… I’ve never seen so many… I feel so small and … there’s so much to look at and…’
‘I thought it might be a little overwhelming for you. But you’re bright and brave and I’m sure you’ll cope. Don’t stare and gape, especially at people; they’re not so tolerant of innocence in cities. Country folk are a lot more accommodating of strangeness, rather oddly. I’ll answer any question you want to ask. And, please, do ask. Don’t be afraid or embarrassed. I’d much rather you asked than made an idiot of yourself.’
‘Or of you.’
‘True. But it’s you I’m most concerned about. Right. Stay in the car whilst I get the ticket.’
‘I want to come with you, Leigh. I want to see. I want to see everything.’
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