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Authors: Janet Tanner

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BOOK: The Black Mountains
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“Haven't you got anything better to do?” he said now, less unkindly, as he trod water amongst the rushes.

She shrugged without replying, and he was just about to swim to the bank and get out when he remembered he wasn't wearing a bathing costume.

A fierce panic ran through him as he automatically glanced towards the untidy pile of discarded clothes. She followed his gaze and, seeing his reason for hesitation, a slow smile lit up her sallow features.

“Ted Hall, I don't believe you've got anything on!” she exclaimed.

Hot colour flooded his cheeks and, as if blushing had taken every bit of warm blood from the rest of his body, he was suddenly achingly cold.

“Go on home, Rosa!” he yelled at her, but this time she had the upper hand, and she knew it.

Laughing, she danced her way through the brambles to where the clothes lay, and he could only watch, agonized, as she picked them up, a garment at a time, waving them tauntingly at him.

“If you want your drawers, come and get them! Come and get them—I dare you!”

“Rosa!” he pleaded. “ Give them back! Just wait till I get out of here!”

But she only laughed again.

Then, without warning, the quiet erupted. The undergrowth rustled, and out bounded a small black-and-white dog, barking furiously and intent on joining in the fun. It dived at Rosa, jumping up at the trousers she was waving. Screaming, she dropped them on to the bank. For one ghastly moment Ted thought the dog would take them and run off with them. But Rosa, squealing with fear, turned to flee, and the dog realized she was a better bet for a little sport. As she ran, in a flurry of petticoats, so the dog went after her, yapping round her heels.

The long grass parted and closed behind them, and Ted made the bank with a few frenzied strokes. He climbed out of the water, grabbing up the trousers that Rosa had dropped and pulling them over his wet legs. Only when he had buckled his belt around his waist did he give a thought to the girl, and with the rest of his clothes under his arm he set off across the field in the direction she had gone.

A few yards away he saw her, spread-eagled against a tree, and gazing in mesmerized horror at the dog, who stood guard over her, still barking excitedly.

“Serves you right, Rosa!” he laughed, but her terror was so apparent that he knew he could not leave her there.

“All right, I'm coming,” he called.

As he approached the dog's barking lessened, and he cocked an ear in Ted's direction.

“Here, boy, leave, leave!” Ted commanded, and to his surprise the dog turned to look at him, head on one side.

“He won't hurt you,” Ted said to the terrified Rosa, and to the dog, “Here, boy! Come on, here!”

The dog stood undecided, then as Ted ran a short distance and stopped, looking back, the dog made up his mind. A moving object was more fun than a still one. With one last longing look at Rosa, he galloped over to Ted and the boy patted his head affectionately.

“See?” he said to Rosa, who cautiously left her place by the tree and edged around behind him. “ He only wants a bit of fun.”

She watched, still nervous, but beginning to be ashamed of her fear.

“Dogs don't like me,” she said after a moment. “ They always go for me.”

“He wasn't going for you, he was just playing.”

“He was going for me,” she said stubbornly. “And I know why, too. It's because I'm a witch.”

“What?” He laughed out loud before he could stop himself. “You, a witch? Oh, Rosa!”

“I am too!” She drew herself up, a skinny child in a torn, grass-stained smock. “Don't you laugh at me, or I'll make you sorry. I know spells that could make your hair stand on end or your teeth drop out. I know …”

“Why don't you try them then?” he asked, rolling the dog over to rub its stomach.

“Because!”

“Because what?”

“Because if I did, you'd be sorry. But I do know them, all the same. I know everything.” She paused, then her eyes, deep and tantalizing, held his. “ I even know who let out the Durrants' pig.”

“You do?” he repeated with a start.

She nodded. “ I was down in the hen-pen, and I saw. ' Twas Tommy Bryant. And I know why. Old Ma Durrant had been after him for shooting peas at her from behind the wall. Mr Davies caned him for it—three strokes on Friday afternoon.”

“Are you sure?” Ted asked, and when she nodded again, he got up, pulling on his shirt. “Will you come home with me, Rosa, and tell our Mam what you just told me?”

Still wary of the dog, she hung back, and Ted gave him a friendly push.

“Go on now, go on home, wherever you come from, you scamp. You've had your fun.”

But the dog did not go. It stood and watched, head on one side, while Ted and Rosa started back across the field, then began to follow at a distance.

Rosa, fearful it might ‘go for her' again, kept looking anxiously over her shoulder, in the hope that it would tire of the game and go home, but Ted could not help feeling gratified. He rather liked the little beast.

When they reached the corner of the rank it was still there, hanging back uncertainly, but he forgot it in the anticipation of relaying to Charlotte what Rosa had just told him.

Charlotte was out in the yard, talking to Peggy Yelling, as Ted hurried up to her with Rosa.

“Mam, Mam, I've got something to tell you!”

She turned and saw him. “Ted! Where do you think you've been? The others are at chapel. You're a bad boy, going off like that …”

“Wait, Mam!” he interrupted her. “ Rosa knows who let the pig out. She saw.”

“It was Tommy Bryant,” Rosa put in importantly.

“Are you sure?” Charlotte drew herself up. “ Well, in that case, I'm going to see Mr Durrant and tell him what I think of him, coming in like that, spoiling our breakfast!”

“Won't they be at chapel?” Peggy asked.

Charlotte shook her head. “They haven't gone this morning. Martha's got one of her heads, all on account of the pig. But they aren't going to get away with this, Peggy. And to think I was going to let them have half our parsnips!”

Wiping her hands in her apron, she crossed to the Durrants' door, rapping on it loudly and motioning Ted and Rosa to stay close beside her.

After a moment, Charlie appeared. He looked anxiously from one to the other and then indicated the bedroom window.

“Martha's in bed,” he said jerkily. “ She's bad.”

“It's you I wanted to see, Charlie,” Charlotte told him. “ You're the one who was throwing accusations around. Now I've got a witness here who saw who let your pig out, and it wasn't our Ted. Tell him, Rosa!”

With the safe distance of half the yard between them, Rosa glowered balefully at Charlie and repeated her story.

“You see?” Charlotte attacked him triumphantly when she had finished. “ What have you got to say to that, Charlie?”

But Charlie in defeat was even more tenacious than Charlie on the attack.

“I still say your Ted's no good!” he maintained. “ He causes more trouble than enough.”

“And you think that gives you the right to burst into my kitchen, accusing him of all kinds of things he had nothing to do with,” Charlotte cried, really angry now. “I warn you—any more, and I'll have you up for libel.”

“But our pig
were
let out!” Charlie quivered.

“Yes, and that's another thing!” Charlotte snorted. “That pig of yours is nothing but a nuisance. It shouldn't be there at all. It stinks! We say nothing because we like to be neighbourly, but when it comes to this … Aren't I right, Peggy?” she asked, turning to her friend. “ I bet you can smell it right down your end of the rank!”

Peggy held back, reluctant to be involved in the argument, but just then the upper window of the Durrants' house was thrown open, and Martha's head appeared. Beneath her nightcap her face was pale, and she was clutching a flannel to her forehead.

“Can't you keep quiet down there, all of you?” she wailed. “And, Charlie, that dog—look what he's doing!”

They turned to see the little black-and-white dog idly cocking a leg against the post which fenced in the Durrants' garden. Charlie, already incensed, aimed a kick at the dog, and it was Ted's turn to lose his temper.

“Don't take it out on him! Here, boy, come here!”

The dog, who had nimbly avoided Charlie's threatening boot, cowered away. But when Ted called to him again, he came forwards warily. Ted rubbed the dog's nose, and in return was licked with a rough wet tongue.

“I reckon he's hungry, Mam,” he said. “Have we got any scraps we could give him?”

“Ah, we have. A whole lot of cold, wasted bacon!” Charlotte said loudly. “ Give him that, Ted. It's all it's good for since Charlie made a muck-up of our breakfast.”

The Durrants' window banged angrily, and suppressing a grin, Ted went into the house. When he came out again, Charlie had disappeared and Charlotte and Peggy were going over the whole incident again. But the dog was still there, and as soon as Ted put the scraps down he gobbled them up, wagging his tail excitedly, then jumping up to look for more.

“Can he have the bone from the meat at dinner-time?” he asked Charlotte, and she sighed resignedly, shaking her head and smiling.

“If he's still here, I dare say he can. But he'll be gone by then, I expect. He knows where his home is if you don't.”

“I suppose so,” Ted said, realizing he was quite fond of the creature. “ But if he is a stray—do you think I could keep him?” he ventured.

Charlotte laughed shortly, looking at the Durrants' closed door.

“I should think so. But if he's a rover, you won't have him long. He'll stay just as long as he feels like it, and one day he'll disappear just like he came. So don't get too attached to him, son.”

Ted said nothing. He liked the idea of the dog being a rover. There was a free feel to the word that excited him deep down.

But he hoped the dog
would
stay, anyway.

Chapter Three

In spite of Charlotte's prediction that the dog would disappear as suddenly as he had come, Nipper, as Ted named him, was still around the next day—and the day after that.

“I think you ought to put a card down in the paper-shop window,” Jack suggested. “ Somebody might be worried about him.”

Charlotte laughed shortly. She was of the opinion that if the dog had a good home to go back to, he'd go—and in any case, Ted was so attached to the little mongrel that she couldn't help hoping he would stay. It was good to see Ted caring about something.

But Jack couldn't bear the thought that somewhere the dog's owner might be wretched with anxiety, and he insisted a card in the paper-shop window was the right thing to do. Although he and Ted almost came to blows about it, he wrote it out and took it down, and for a week or two Charlotte—and Ted—lived in fear of someone knocking on the door to claim Nipper.

But no one did.

When the weather grew colder, Ted made up a bed for him in the wash-house, and he was even sometimes allowed into the kitchen.

Christmas came and went, and Nipper was still around, and he was there the following June for the street party the rank held to celebrate the coronation of King George and Queen Mary. This promised to be the biggest and the best ever held in the rank. From the moment the coronation date was public, there had been talk of a party, but it had taken Peggy Yelling to organize it.

“She's got more time than most of us with her family all grown-up,” Charlotte said, and James knew she would have loved to organize the party herself, in honour of the occasion. He was quietly amused by the way that Charlotte idolized the Royal Family and all they did. Her military background had given her a liking for ceremonial, and she avidly read every newspaper account she could lay her hands on, snipping out the pictures and getting Jack to paste them into a scrapbook for her.

But arranging a party of this size was not a job for a woman with a demanding family, a baby and a cleaning post. It needed someone like Peggy, enthusiastic, efficient and cheerfully bossy, who could shoulder the responsibility and enjoy it She attacked the task with the same vigour she brought to delivering babies, and before long the plans had grown to take in some of the people who lived in the cottages on the hill as well as the twenty houses in the rank.

“Oh, let them come—they've nowhere to have a party of their own. And it's the more the merrier as far as I'm concerned,” she said, cheerfully overruling those who thought the rank should keep itself to itself.

Soon everyone had their own special responsibility. Some of the men were detailed to collect trestle tables from the Co-operative rooms in one of the carts from Bristow's Livery Stables at the bottom of the hill, and rotas were arranged among the women for baking and jelly-making. Peggy made a collection to buy a big ham, which she cooked in her copper one warm evening when all the windows were open, and the smell wafted out to make everyone's mouth water in anticipation.

The children had their jobs, too—there were balloons to be blown up, red, white and blue bunting to be hung from the back bedroom windows to the wash-houses opposite, and the rank to be swept clean of every bit of muck and dirt that might have been left by the delivery horses.

Even Martha Durrant was roped in to man the tea-urn, a task which would keep her at a safe distance from the merry-making.

“Just pray for a fine day tomorrow, that's all,” Peggy said to Charlotte as they counted through a pile of white, starched tablecloths the night before. “ What we'll do if it rains, I just don't know.”

“It won't rain,” Charlotte replied confidently, flicking at the air in front of her face. “The gnats are flying tonight.”

“Yes, and that's not all that's flying, by all accounts,” Peggy told her. “ Have you heard the latest? They're going to deliver letters in one of those flying machines in honour of the coronation.”

BOOK: The Black Mountains
4.66Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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