Love will come to me and I will not remain
Hover over these confused contaminated veins
- Holly Brook - Cellar Door

October, 1912

"What about the girl?"

The whispering crowd of neighbours in the sitting-room were sipping the tea I had helped serve. I could hear the delicate chink of china as they placed the cups onto the saucers or stirred sugar and milk into their tea. I was supposed to be asleep, but I could not sleep. My bedroom reminded me too much of Mother. Even my pillow smelt like her - soap, lavendar and sunshine. I hid next to the entrance of the sitting-room, listening to them discuss my fate.

"Doesn't Charlotte have relatives?" asked a voice I thought I recognised as Mr Blount's.

"She only talked about them once to me," answered a woman, "but she did not mention where they were."

Someone snorted. "Do you really think that they would take in the illegitimate child of a single mother? Would you?" A silence. "No, Catherine cannot go to Charlotte's relatives wherever they might be."

"What about the father?" asked a new voice.

The same person who had scorned the possibility of going to my estranged relatives snorted again. "Why should he care about an eight-year-old daughter of his whom he has probably never met?"

"What about an orphanage?" Mr Blount asked. "My relative often donates money to one in Carlisle. I'm sure he would be happy to help us arrange things for the girl."

"Nonsense. What would an orphanage do? Neglect her until she is old enough to be kicked out into the world and work as someone's parlour maid. No, an orphanage won't do. If anything, I would rather she stay here in Saint Christopher's."

There was a long silence in the room. More clinking of china. I squeezed my fists and chewed my bottom lip. I had never felt so unwanted as I did in the last ten minutes.

"She can stay with me."

A new voice. I recognised this as Mrs Ford's voice, the kind, elderly lady who took in the sewing of the village. Everyone gave them their clothing and sheets to mend because they pitied her. Mother would give her the odd torn skirt and blouse once in a while, but I never paid attention to Mrs Ford. Not until that evening.

"Nonsense, Julia," snapped a woman.

Everyone knew that Mrs Ford was poor, even by Saint Christopher's standards.

"It's quite all right, Ruthie," said Mrs Ford calmly. "James sends in sufficient funds from the city, and I am quite confident that we will be able to support her and myself. The house is quite empty without James, and I wish to fill it with the laughter of children again."

"'Laughter'," scoffed Mrs Ruthie Ager. "Catherine Barratt is so quiet and solemn that we ought to apprentice her to an undertaker."

"And sarcastic," put in a voice I recognised as the vicar's wife, Mrs Bennett. "That girl has a mouth of a viper just like her mother."

A few people tittered. I squeezed my fists,

"Now, now, Mrs Bennett," said Mrs Ford calmly. "Everything will be just fine. I will speak to Catherine in the morning, and if she agrees, she will live with me by next Monday afternoon."

-
April, 1915

War came. By spring 1915, half the young men in the village disappeared for the battlefields on the Continent. I knew that Mrs Ford had a son - James - through the letters he sent from London every two months without fail. Between James's money and Mrs Ford's sewing, we lived well enough. I also knew that she prayed that he would not enlist or be drafted into the war, like the other young men in Saint Christopher's. Each Sunday, as the names of the dead, missing and wounded were read out in church by the vicar, she would tightly grip my hand and close her eyes.

Her prayers were not answered.

I was in the garden when a young man came up the path with a suitcase in one hand. I caught sight of him and watched him as he smiled at me. He had red-brown hair, tanned skin and a pleasant-looking face.

"Hello," he said. "You must be Catherine."

"Yes," I said quietly. I disliked strangers, and I shifted my weight from one foot to the other. I dropped the piece of string I was playing with.

His smile widened, revealing a dimple in his chin. "That's good," he said. "You don't know me, but I'm James, Mrs Ford's son."

I nodded. Suddenly I trusted him. I was grateful to the unseen financier, who had suddenly appeared before me, who paid for each morsel of food that passed my lips in Mrs Ford's home. But I knew that after I moved into Mrs Ford's, people invited us over to their house for a meal more often, women came up the garden path more often bearing a pie or a cake or a pudding.

"Good afternoon," I said.

I went into the house to find Mrs Ford. She was making apple pie in the kitchen. Her fingers were white with flour, and there was a smudge of grease on her cheek. I watched her for a few minutes, and felt my stomach rumble as I imagined the taste of the pie in my mouth.

She noticed me first.

"Hello Catherine," she said, smiling. "Would you like a glass of water?"

I shook my head. "James is here," I announced in a tone that sounded like I was announcing that the sun had come out today.

Mrs Ford dropped the rolling-pin she was holding. It fell to the kitchen floor with a hollow noise, scattering little puffs of flour in every direction.

"James?" she repeated.

I nodded. "Your son," I said, sticking my finger into the apple mixture. "He has come up from London. He looks nice." The apple mixture tasted delicious. The apples were sweet enough for her to not use sugar.

By now, James had come into the kitchen. He was beaming, which made his face light up and for a moment seem irresistably handsome. Mother and son embraced while I watched them, talking a second lick of the apple mixture on my finger.

For a brief moment, I smelt my mother. Soap, lavender and sunshine.

As a celebration, Mrs Ford drove James and I out of the kitchen while she cooked up a feast. But anything more than potatoes and a bit if meat in Mrs Ford's home was a feast. James played with me in the garden, where he had no doubt played countless of times when he was a child. I liked James. I liked the way how he played with me, like he was my friend. Most of the young men in the village - before they left - ignored me or treated me like I was younger than my ten years.

"Why are you in Saint Christopher's?" I asked when we fell on the grass, sweating and breathless. "You have never visited before."

James smiled and plucked at a blade of grass. I sensed that he was hiding something.

"You can tell me," I said. "I promise not to tell anyone." I held up my little finger on my right hand, just to show my sincerity. "I am good at keeping secrets."

"You promise not to tell, Catherine?" he said softly, casting an eye at the house.

I nodded. "I promise."

In a soft voice, so soft that I had to lean close to him (James smelt of sweat, aftershave and cigarettes), he said in my ear: "I have come to tell my mother that I have enlisted in the army. I leave for France in a month's time. I have come home for a visit before I make my way down to Dover."

I sucked in my breath. I knew that Mrs Ford would not like this.

She did not. I could hear them talking late into the night, when I was supposed to be asleep.

"Why, James, why?" asked Mrs Ford. "You don't need to enlist. I'm sure the British Army have plenty of boys to fight without you."

"I see the names of the dead and wounded and missing, Mother," he said, "and I feel useless, like I'm not doing something. Most of my mates have gone up to fight. And besides, Mr Walters has agreed that if I go, he will send all my pay with a little bonus to you. You can live a little more comfortably now, with Catherine." Pause. "Don't worry about me, my dear mother. I'll be as right as rain."

-
July, 1917

James, like many others, did not come home. I did not cry, like Mrs Ford did, when the telegram came in early July. I did not know him well enough to weep for his passing. It was a pity he died, though. I would have liked to gotten to him a little better.

(After the war, one of his fellow soldiers visited Mrs Ford and said that a grenade was thrown into their trench, and James heroically threw himself over it. He had enough shrapnel in his chest to quill a porcupine.)

A new problem arose after James died: money. With James gone, his employer Mr Walters would no longer be sending money over. What Mrs Ford earned from sewing was not enough to feed us both.

"I could find work," I offered one evening. "I could send an advertisement to the Carlisle newspaper. Perhaps some rich family would like a maid."

Mrs Ford shook her head. "Only the very lowest and most desperate of girls would become maids. And it is hard work. Your hands will turn rough, your back will ache permanently and you will have barely enough sleep. No, work is not an option for you, Catherine. You are too young."

"You sound like you are well acquainted with the hardships of a servant," I said, smiling.

She looked away. "Of course. Where else did you think I met Mr Ford?"

"If Mr Ford was the son of a rich family, why-."

"They disowned him," said Mrs Ford. "Foolish Harold gave up his inheritence to be with me."

I was silent. Talking about love did not solve our material problems.

"Don't worry," said Mrs Ford. "We have enough savings to last us for a while. We will have it all resolved by then. Don't worry." She kissed my forehead and told me to go.

-
January, 1919

The war ended, as all wars do. Young men came home, hardened by the years of fighting. More men left than returned. Among those who returned was a certain John Garth.

John Garth was the son of one of the wealthier men in Saint Christopher's. He used to be the object of pity in Saint Christopher's: his mother died when he was only ten. The ladies at church tyrannised over this motherless boy. Being seven years older than me, our paths did not cross very often. I would see John briefly, but we did not notice each other very much. I thought him spoiled, and I suspected he thought that I was a foolish, unreasonable young girl.

"What do you mean the Garths are coming over after church?" I asked one afternoon, suddenly feeling a burst of annoyance in my chest.

"It means," Mrs Ford said calmly, setting two places at the dining table, "that we are expecting guests on Sunday, and I expect the you to be a polite hostess."

It also meant we would have to eat a little less during the week to pay for the sugar, the better-grade tea and the cake. During the week, I thought to myself that if we were to eat any less just to feed the Garths, our food would disappear completely from our plates.

The Garths finally arrived on Sunday, and I got an eyeful of John.

He was lean on the verge of famine-thin. I suppose I could call him good looking if he had smiled more or talked more. I reckon his answers would have been monosyllabic were he not so polite. He sat next to his father, looking at the picture on the wall above my shoulder, and only spoke if someone asked him a question. His skin was dark. His hair was a dark, dark brown that could be mistaken for black. He had a pointed, straight nose, pleasant grey eyes and, I had to admit, lovely lips. The moment I thought of his lips as nice, I blushed and looked down into my cup of tea.

Once in a while, our gazes would lock for a split second. Then, his eyes would go back to the picture and mine back into my tea.

His father, Mr Edwin Garth, was another matter. He was quite large, but not in an obnoxious way. John had inherited his dark skin, his nose and his lips. Evidently, John had not inherited his sense of humour or personality. Even though I did not feel like it, an occasional witty comment from Mr Edwin Garth would make me stifle a rising giggle. I could see that even John, in all his silence and sulleness, hide a smile that did not reach his eyes.

"This is a wonderful cake, Mrs Ford," commented Mr Garth, taking a second slice. "Did you bake it?"

"Yes," said Mrs Ford. "Would you like some more cake, John?"

I looked at John with curious eyes. He glanced at me and then to Mrs Ford: "No, thank you, Mrs Ford."

"How about you, Catherine?" asked Mr Garth. "Did six years of living with our wonderful Mrs Ford teach you to bake and cook as well as she does? Come, come, you must tell us the secret of her legendary cuilinary skills."

I smiled. "I cook well enough," I said. "And there are no secrets." I boldly added: "If there are secrets, they should not be told. Then they would lose the status of a secret and become no more than village gossip."

Mr Garth guffawed, Mrs Ford laughed politely. I thought I saw John's lips twitch.

"What if I were to ask you to cook for a large gathering of people," said Mr Garth. "Say, you were to host a dinner party. Would your skills be suffice to whip up a wonderful meal of about, say, fifteen people?"

I glanced at Mrs Ford, puzzled. Was she thinking of hiring me out to the Garths? "Yes, sir. I daresay so."

Mr Garth looked at me thoughtfully for a moment before breaking into a grin. Then he turned back to Mrs Ford and they began to discuss the local news at Saint Christopher's.

It was a week later that she told me.

"You are to marry John Garth by this autumn," said Mrs Ford quietly to me one evening. "Mr Garth has also agreed. He adds that John is quite happy about the arrangement."

Over the wave of shock that washed over me, I could only think: John Garth, happy?

When I had finally recovered, I could only say: "Why?"

"Mr Garth wants someone who can take care of John for the rest of his life," Mrs Ford said, calmly folding her hands on her lap. "I know what you want to say, Catherine. 'Why can't they hire a maid?' you will say. He wants someone who has a more lasting agreement and bond.

"Then again, you might say, 'Why can't he take care of himself?' John has not been the same boy since he came home from the war, Catherine. John was not always like this. There was a time when he was friendly, cheerful and polite. He was very much like my own James."

It was as if she had thought through all of it before she broke the news to me. But the question I had on the tip of my tongue was:

"Why does it have to be me? Why can't it be a rich girl from the city who can pay for maids and care for him at the same time?"

"Mr Garth" - who was from London - "does not like people from the city, believe it or not," said Mrs Ford, smiling. "Do you know that John's mother was from Saint Christopher's, too? He does not want his son to be swept up in the high social circle that a rich wife will inevitably bring."

I was still not convinced.

"John will give you security and a roof over your head. Is that not enough?"

"But you have given me that security and that home," I said, feeling my patience and calm beginning to snap.

Her face flushed with anger. I was surprised: I had never seen her angry before.

"But I will not be around for ever, Catherine," said Mrs Ford. "Who will care for you when I am gone?" She calmed herself down before concluding with a: "No, you will benefit as much from this union as he will." She came over and kissed my forehead, which meant that our conversation was over.

I knew I should be grateful that Mrs Ford went through all that trouble of arranging things for me, and caring so much for me.

And I also knew that whatever I said or did, I had no way out of this arrangement. I didn't even have a mother to stand up for me.


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