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Authors: Janet Tanner

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BOOK: The Black Mountains
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Charlotte nodded. Jack was enthralled by every new development of the aeroplane, following the thrills and spills of Bleriot and the other pilots as eagerly as she followed news of the Royal Family. He had taken up a whole tea time telling the family about the mail that was going to be flown from Hendon to Windsor in September, but Charlotte thought it was a crazy idea.

“As far as I'm concerned, the postman comes around seven days a week, and he comes on foot,” she said “Now, are you sure there's nothing we've forgot, Peg?”

“Well, let's think,” Peggy said, and the newfangled aeroplanes were forgotten as yet again they went through the list of things they needed for the party.

The next day the rank was a hive of activity. Although the party would not really start until mid-afternoon, a great many things had had to be left until the last minute, and people bustled about, calling to one another above the sounds of hammering and bumping.

The men caused a slight hold-up. Most of them had to work until midday, and it was pay-day too. Each Saturday, the colliers, or getters as they were called, would queue at the pithead to be paid for the coal their team had brought out that week, and it was up to them to pay the carting boys their share. This was usually done over a pint in the George or the Miners Arms, but today the men from the rank rushed through the ritual as quickly as they could so as to get the cart and pick up the trestles.

At last it was all ready and, leaving Ted, Redvers and the Brimble boys to keep an eye on things, the rest of the rank disappeared into their houses to get dressed for the occasion.

Charlotte, who expected to be working as much as playing, put on a clean apron, and at her insistence James and the boys buttoned on their clean, starched collars instead of wearing their shirts open as they usually did. Amy had to be squeezed into the party dress she was fast out-growing, and a new ribbon was tied in her hair.

They were all ready when Dolly arrived, pink and flustered from running down the hill from Captain Fish's. She had managed to rearrange things so that this was her afternoon off, but there had been a last-minute crisis in the kitchen, and now she was late.

“Oh, Mam, can you do up my buttons?” she begged, coming into Charlotte's room with her best blouse still undone. “I'm shaking so much I'm all fingers and thumbs.”

“What kept you?” Charlotte asked.

“The stove was too hot, and Cook burnt the scones. We had to do them all again. She blamed everybody but herself, of course. But never mind, it's all done now,” Dolly added with a return to her usual placid acceptance.

“You don't mean she blamed you?” Charlotte said sharply. Although Dolly had started at Captain Fish's as a housemaid, they thought highly of her, and Cook was training her so that Dolly would be able to step into her shoes when she retired in a few years' time.

“Oh, I don't think so,” Dolly replied. “ You know how it is. She'll have forgotten all about it in five minutes. It's just that I didn't want to be late, Mam, because I've got something to tell you.”

“Now?” Charlotte asked.

From the buzz of voices outside she knew the party was beginning, and Harry would need washing and changing when he woke from his afternoon nap. But Dolly nodded eagerly, and Charlotte saw that her cheeks were pinker than they would normally have been merely from running down the hill.

“Go on down, Amy, and see if Harry's awake,” she said to her younger daughter, who was waiting in the doorway and dancing with impatience. “I'll be down directly to see to him.”

Then she turned back to Dolly, smiling indulgently.

“What is it, then? Something to do with a boy, I'll be bound.”

“How did you know?” Dolly asked, surprised.

“It's written all over you. Who is he then?”

“Evan Comer. He comes from Purldown,” Dolly said, naming the next village on the way to Bath.

“Oh, yes, and how did you meet him?”

“He delivers for the Co-op, and he comes to Captain Fish's. Only I had to tell you, Mam, because I asked him to the party.” Dolly's eyes were blue and untroubled now that she had broken her news, and Charlotte laughed shortly, shaking her head.

“Oh, well, it had to come, I suppose. You're seventeen after all. But it makes me feel my age!”

“Oh, Mam!” Dolly dimpled, “It was all right, was it, me inviting him to the party?”

“Of course, it was,” Charlotte told her. “ You're not a child now, Dolly. But the most important thing is, do you like him? He's a nice boy, is he?”

“Oh, Mam, I hardly know him.” Dolly laughed. “ I'll tell you that when I've been going out with him a bit longer. But the boys'll like him, that's for sure. He's a really good footballer. He plays for Hillsbridge Reserves, and he thinks he'll be in the proper team this year.”

“That's all right then,” Charlotte said, not really knowing what she meant, but aware that Amy was calling to say that Harry was awake.

“Shall I do him?” Dolly offered, but Charlotte shook her head.

“It's your afternoon off, my girl. You go on down and enjoy yourself.”

Dolly went, full of excitement, and Charlotte followed her down into the kitchen where Harry was sitting wedged on the settle. With all the excitement he had refused to go upstairs in his cot for his rest, but exhaustion had got the better of him, and he had put his head down and fallen asleep where he was.

Amy bobbed up and down with impatience as she saw Charlotte enter the room.

“Can I go out, Mammy? They've started! Everybody's there but us.”

“Yes, go on Amy,” Charlotte said.

Picking Harry up, Charlotte inspected the state of his napkin, and he stared at her with unwinking blue eyes. At eleven months, he was heavier than the other children had been, and she thought it was probably because he was less active.

Sometimes she worried about it, wondering why he was making no attempt to walk or pull himself up on the furniture. Abnormality terrified her, and the thought of something being wrong with Harry seemed to haunt her. But pushing her morbid thoughts aside, she brushed Harry's curls and changed him into a clean dress.

Outside the children were playing games. Walter Clements had produced a tin plate and organized a game of twirl-the-trencher to keep them out of the way of the food. On the cobbles it didn't work very well. Each time a number was called there was a mad scramble while the child involved dived to catch the plate, and mostly they didn't make it. But they were enjoying it anyway.

Charlotte, carrying Harry, went down the rank to Peggy's house to see what needed to be done.

On the way she passed James and the other men already congregating outside the Presleys' wash-house, which was being used as a bar, and looking longingly at the beer barrels and the crate of home-brewed that had been brought in for the occasion.

“You don't want to start on that yet,” she told them sternly. “There's tea to come first.”

“Let's get on with it then,” Moses Brimble said with a laugh. “We've been starving ourselves for this all day.”

Walter Clements kept the children occupied with yet another game of twirl-the-trencher, while Charlotte, Peggy, Ada Clements and the other women carried out the food and set it on the white-covered trestles: fresh baked bread and butter, pickled onions and chutney, cheese, brawn—and the ham. They placed the jellies at intervals down the tables, and the children's eyes grew round at the sight of them.

When it was all ready, Ted was asked to lead a chorus of
God Save the King
, and Jacob Cottle from number eight said grace. Then, they all tucked in and for a while all was quiet, but it did not last long for as the plates emptied chatter began to break out again.

Tea over, the trestles were cleared away, and there were more games, in which many adults joined their children. Then Moses Brimble got out his fiddle and began to play, and soon the more energetic among them were dancing.

Now the excitement that had sung in the air earlier in the day had mellowed to enjoyment, and neighbours forgot their differences as they twirled around to a waltz or a raucous Gay Gordon.

“See me dance the polka, see me touch the ground/See my coat-tails flying as I swizz my partner round!” sang Jacob Cottle as he and his plump little wife made breathless circles on the cobbles, and the younger ones stopped dancing to watch them.

Even Martha Durrant looked almost cheerful, presiding over her tea-urn and managing to ignore the men with their mugs of homebrewed. No one felt like telling her that Charlie had slipped into the Presleys' wash-house, and was quietly supping away well out of her view.

The younger children became wild and silly, racing about and falling over themselves, and they had to be taken away, protesting, to bed. Babies, like Harry, fell asleep in their mothers' arms while they sat watching the dancing. And still Moses Brimble's fiddle scraped on.

Charlotte, sitting in her doorway with Harry, was feeling tired but contented. It had been worth all the effort, she thought, to have everyone together and enjoying themselves. Why, King George himself couldn't have enjoyed his coronation more. And in those hot, ermine-trimmed robes, with a heavy crown on his head, he'd probably enjoyed it a great deal less.

She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, looking up and down the rank. Dolly she had seen just now, dancing by with a well-built, dark-haired boy she'd introduced to Charlotte as Evan. Ted and Fred were over by the wash-houses with Redvers and the Brimble boys, waiting their chance to slip in and help themselves to a glass of beer. And Amy was being whirled around in a barn dance by Colwyn Yelling, Peggy's grown-up son, who was almost two feet taller than she was.

But it was some time since she had seen either Jim or Jack, and she looked for them now, narrowing her eyes against the glare of the setting sun.

Jim she saw first, though he had his back to her. He was leaning against the wall with an air of nonchalance that she knew was far from being anything of the kind, and talking to Sarah Brimble, Moses' daughter.

Charlotte smiled to herself. She'd heard the other boys teasing Jim about Sarah and saying he was ‘ sweet on her,' but that was as far as it had gone. Now, it looked as if Jim had broken the ice at last—and from the way Sarah was dimpling up at him, he wasn't doing too badly, either.

Feeling like an interloper, she turned away, and as she did so she saw Jack standing alone under the wash-house wall. His hands were deep in his pockets, and there was a dreaming expression on his face, an acute contrast to the obvious enjoyment of the others.

A deep, sad ache knotted inside her and the guilt that was never far away twisted sharply. There was a gentle, dreaming quality about his face that had come from neither her nor James, and another year at school seemed only to have intensified it. His eyes were blue, it was true, as clear as her own, but they seemed too often to be looking at some far-off vision that only he could see. And he was doing it now.

Or was he?

The first cold breeze of evening shivered over her, and she wondered why she was suddenly so aware that this time Jack was
not
simply staring into space. She shifted her position, trying to follow his gaze, and found herself looking straight at Rosa, the oldest of the Clements children.

Shock brought her upright. Rosa? Surely Jack could not actually be watching Rosa, the gypsy-like urchin who spent more time than was good for her alone in the woods? She was only a child, and he was not much more. And besides …

“If it was Ted I could understand it,” thought Charlotte. “She seems to follow him everywhere, and child or not, she looks like a girl with a strong, passionable nature. But not Jack—never Jack.”

“Lotty?”

She almost jumped at the mention of her name and, looking up, saw James in the doorway beside her. His shirt was undone at the neck now, his spotted handkerchief knotted inside it.

“Put Harry to bed and come out and have a bit of a dance,” he said fondly to her. “It isn't every day we have a coronation, Lotty.”

And pulling herself up, she smiled at him.

“You're right, James, it's not,” she agreed.

NIPPER was missing, and had been since the night of the street party, three days ago.

That night, when the food had been cleared away, Ted untied him, and he wandered about, sniffing at the dancers and watching the merry-making with a puzzled air. But later on, when it got dark, some of the boys started letting off firecrackers and when the first one exploded close behind him, he took to his heels and rushed down across the gardens, paying no heed to Ted's callings.

“Don't worry, he'll be back as soon as it's quiet,” Redvers assured him. But Nipper did not come back, and Ted was frantic with worry.

“I warned him not to get too attached to the thing,” Charlotte said, but despite her cross tone she was sorry for Ted.

Every morning he came down early and went straight to the back door, his face a mixture of hope and apprehension. And when there was no sign of Nipper, the hope died like a light going out.

Every night, as soon as he had changed out of his pit clothes, he was off across the fields looking for the little dog, but although he called himself hoarse Nipper did not come.

For the first two nights Redvers went with him. But by the third night he was tired of the excursions, and made the excuse that he had to help his father in the garden.

Ted, setting out alone, decided he would try a different way. Up the hill he went, past Captain Fish's, and along Ridge Road which followed the line of the hillside as far as the eye could see in the direction of the down and beneath it to the village of Purldown.

From here the view was magnificent, a spread of countryside reaching clear to the Mendips, with only a sprinkling of cottages and the occasional church tower. Not a batch could be seen, not a pit wheel, and even the chimneys and yards in the valley below were hidden by the curve of the hillside.

BOOK: The Black Mountains
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