Authors: Janet Tanner
“Don't be so silly,” she told herself. “ Why in the world should it be Ted?”
But her heart was thumping, shyness making her hotâas if I were thirteen again, not twenty-one, she thought. And when he turned around, and she saw his face, all the use seemed to go out of her legs.
The similarity had not been in her imagination. It
Colour flooded her cheeks, and she wished she could turn and ran. What was he
here? He couldn't have come to see her, could he? She mustn't even think such a thing!
She walked towards him slowly, eyeing him warily.
“Hello, Rosa,” he said, and she somehow knew the casual manner hid an embarrassment as acute as hers. “How are you doing?”
“All right. How are you?”
“Oh, all right. There's no work to be had now, that's the trouble. Serves me right, I suppose. I should have took a job and stuck to it.”
She laughed, a little falsely. “I can't say anything about that. It would be the pot calling the kettle black.”
“Yes. But you've landed on your feet, haven't you?”
“I've been lucky.”
There was an awkward silence, and taking her courage in both hands, she added: “ What are you doing in Withydown?”
He looked embarrassed again. “I came home last week, and I'm at a loose end. I've been for a walk, and when I found myself at the top of the hill, I thought I'd stroll down and see if you were about.”
Suddenly the old hurt was back, and she was remembering how he had once told her she was just a substitute for Rebecca Church. “So I'm only good for when you're at a loose end,” she said tartly.
“No, I didn't mean thatâ¦”
She sighed. “It's all right. I know what you meant. But I won't be used twice, Ted. Once was more than enough.”
For a moment he did not answer, and she was about to turn away when he stopped her. “ Have you got to go back in nowâor do you fancy a walk?”
“I've just been for a walk, butâ¦ it's a nice day, I suppose. Which way?”
“You're the one who knows it around here. I'll follow you.”
“There's a lane across there that leads up to the railway line. It's steep, but there's a nice view from the top.”
They set off, but the awkwardness was still there like a wall between them, and they did not speak until they reached the V-gate at the top of the lane. They went through it, Rosa first, then Ted, and sat down on the slope of the railway embankment. Beneath them, the valley spread out green and peaceful, but they hardly noticed it. Rosa began picking wiry blades of grass, plaiting them together, and Ted watched her for a moment. Then he said, “I wasn't fair with you. I know that now. But it was too soon.”
Breath caught in her throat. She hardly dared hope there might be anything more behind his words. She went on plaiting grass, not looking at him.
“Becky was very special to me.” He might almost have been talking to himself. “But now it's more as if she was a dream. Sometimes I can hardly believe it ever happenedâany of it. It's more like a picture I'd seen at the Palace, or a book I'd read. And now â¦” He glanced along at her. “ I can't help thinking about you, Rosa. I have done ever since the trial, really. You saved my neckâand all that after I'd treated you so badly.”
“I thought you were angry with me, saying what I did,” she said quietly.
“At the time I was,” he admitted. “ But I wasn't seeing things very straight then. Now â¦ well, I'm grateful.”
“You don't have to be,” she said. “That wasn't why I did it.”
“No, but I am, all the same. And it's not only that. I shan't be surprised if you refuse after the way I let you down, but I'd like to see you again, Rosa.”
“Not as a substitute,” she said.
“Not as a substitute.”
For a long moment they looked at one another, the blue eyes and the dark meeting. Then his hand slid across the wiry grass until their fingers touched. Happiness burst in her like a Roman candle on firework night, so that there was suddenly brilliance and beauty where before there had been only darkness. And still in the grass, their fingers twined, tentative, but outstretched and seeking.
It was a beginning.
JACK and Stella were married in September, in one of the grandest ceremonies ever seen in Hillsbridge. Neither had really wanted it to be that way, but the rumours about Hal had proved to be true. He was retiring and going back to his native North Country, and Mrs O'Halloran was determined not only to make up for the austerity of Grace's war-time wedding to Dr Scott, but also to leave an indelible impression on the town where she had spent most of her married life.
Instead of horses and traps, there were motors to carry the guests to and from the church, where the Reverend Reuben Clarke officiated. Dolly and Amy were among the six bridesmaids, in dresses of figured silk, and Alex was a pageboy, looking very grown-up and important as he led Oliver and Grace Scott's toddler, Frances, up the aisle to strew rose petals from her little basket in front of the bridal pair.
The wedding breakfast was held in a marquee on the lawn of the O'Halloran house, and there were a hundred and fifty guests. All the important people of Hillsbridge were there, even, to Charlotte's discomfort, Caroline Archer, but she managed to hide behind her hat every time she saw the former Rector's wife looking in her direction. And Peggy, of course, had been invited. No family celebration would be quite complete without her.
When things quieted down a bit, Charlotte and James found a corner where they could sit down in peace to have something to eatâsmall, dainty sandwiches and some sort of meat paste that Jack said was called patÃ©âand catch their breath after the excitement.
“Fancy our Jack marrying into all this,” Charlotte said, but as she caught sight of him, standing beside Stella and talking with ease to the most important of the guests, she knew that he would fit in much better than he ever would have done with his father's pit cronies. It was the way he was made, and that was all there was to it. But it could never be her way. She would never feel anything but an outsider with grand people like these.
Beside her, James was slurping a little as he tried to drink his tea with unaccustomed delicacy, and she knew he was probably longing to undo the top button of his trousers and lie back, handkerchief over his face, to enjoy the warm September sunshine.
A smile played around her mouth, and she found herself remembering her own wedding, so many years ago now.
It hadn't been a grand do like this, of course. But she'd been happy, just as happy as Stella looked today. She had felt quite sure she was doing the right thing, and so she had been. Maybe the batches hadn't been the romantic black mountains she had imagined them, protecting their magical hidden valley. Maybe James hadn't been her Prince Charming on a dashing white charger. But then, in the end, who is? We are all, after all, only human.
And in spite of the hard times and the tragedies, in spite of the bone-aching work and the small graves in the churchyard, it hadn't been such a bad life. There'd been plenty of laughter and love, plenty of happy memories to warm the autumn of her life. If Jack and Stella were as lucky as she and James had been, they wouldn't do too badly.
But in the end, it's all what you make it, thought Charlotte. Whatever they do, they have to learn that for themselves. I cannot do it for them. Nor should I.
In spite of the warm sunshine, a feeling of loneliness touched her momentarily. None of them needed her any more, except Harry, and he was growing up fast. Soon they'd all be gone and the house would be empty.
Noânot empty. It would be simply her and James as it had been in the beginning. Smiling, she reached out and tucked her arm through his, knowing how he would be hating all this.
“We'll go home soon, don't worry,” she said.
First published in 1981 by Macdonald
This edition published 2012 by Bello
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Copyright Â© Janet Tanner, 1981
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