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Authors: Brenda Jagger

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Yes, a pretty girl, a little overawed perhaps, even a little sad, yet, on the whole serene. Not at all like Eunice herself who had been pregnant on her own wedding day, having given herself hastily and absolutely to Toby the moment her father had threatened to withhold his consent. Not that anyone could really have kept her away from him for long. And thinking now of Jeremy's dark-haired, quiet bride and of what had separated them, she burst out, tears in her voice and nothing but pity and generosity in her heart, ‘We must make her as welcome as we can. Poor soul – how can she bear it?'

‘What?' enquired Nola.

‘Good Heavens – you know very well,' said Eunice, astounded. ‘And apart from everything else, how sad – how dreadful – to be a widow at twenty-three.'

Nola smiled, blinked her long eyes, inhaling tobacco in a languorous, lounging manner neither Eunice nor Miriam recognized as sensual although it made them both uncomfortable. ‘How sad,' she murmured, ‘or – on the other hand – how merry.'

‘Nola!' Eunice, who could not even contemplate the loss of Toby without a shudder of cold fear and had pushed him into a reserved occupation at the first hint of military conscription in 1915, was badly shocked. ‘What a terrible thing to say.'

But Nola, shrewd, unsentimental, merely raised her thin shoulders.

‘Do you think so? What
I
think, Eunice dear, is that she has been a widow for some time – four years isn't it? – ministering to wounded soldiers, which may have aided her recovery. And one forgets.'

‘
I
do not forget,' said Miriam.

‘Of course not, mother.' Eunice was all sympathy and contrition and, as so often, quite wrong for Miriam was not thinking of Jeremy as her daughter supposed but of Aaron, her husband. A thought, in fact, so tender that it took her completely unawares, filling her eyes most unusually with tears.

What
could
be the matter? She had married him for money, she had never lost sight of that. She remembered, very clearly, her jubilation at the prospect of being so rich, her lasting delight in its fulfilment. But what always escaped her memory was just when she had grown so fond of him. What precise event had given rise to it? Had it been a gradual, imperceptible conversion of gratitude into affection? And if she herself had only perceived the true extent of it now, so late in their day, had Aaron ever really been aware of it at all? Once again, for just a moment, the eyes of ‘pretty Mimi'filled with tears.

But she had always known how to shake off her sorrow. Like two of her children, her youngest daughter and her lovely, wasted Jeremy, she had been born in the month of May, the fragrant gentle blossom-time which, she believed, had given all three of them their easy sunny natures, their unquenchable optimism and good humour; just as the sultry, airless day in September when Eunice had come late and gasping into the world, accounted – her mother felt sure of it – for the fact that she had been flustered and clutching at straws ever since.

Miriam, like many leisured and by no means insensitive or unobservant women had her own view of life's mysteries, her personal conception of fate and fortune and destiny, and she had long been of the opinion that it was not so much the Zodiac as the weather which influenced the character of the newborn child.

Pleased with her own perceptiveness she glanced at Nola. March. A high wind, she supposed, a fierce day of sudden showers and bursts of sunshine which had made Nola a child who never knew what she wanted and a woman eternally dissatisfied. She could not remember the birthdate of Claire Lyall – Mrs Jeremy Swanfield – but she rather hoped it might be June, easy indolent midsummer, warm days of plenty and increase, which made for a pleasant restful disposition; an obliging girl who would not bait her like Nola, nor harass her like Eunice, nor wear her out like her younger daughter Polly who was nineteen, pleasure-seeking, romantic, and therefore impossible. Yes. Miriam was in no doubt about it. A twenty-three year old widow with no home of her own and no income beyond anything Benedict might decide to give her would suit her needs exactly.

The door opened and, turning her head, her mind still drifting slightly towards summer meadows and that ever present sensation of Aaron hovering somewhere just beyond her vision, Miriam watched Aaron's likeness, or the closest she could come to it, walk into the room; although she could not remember that Aaron had ever been so separate, so critical, so permanently at a distance as his son Benedict.

He was a tall, intensely dark man approaching forty, a lean olive-skinned face in which the self-containment was immediately evident, eyes so deep-set as to appear coal black, a guarded mouth, an athletic build somewhat concealed by the dry authoritative manner of the businessman. And instantly, differently, they were all three aware of him.

‘Oh Benedict –' said Eunice with a guilty and most unfortunate start, a sure indication, thought Miriam, that she was seriously in need of money.

Poor Eunice.

‘Well, well,' drawled Nola, ‘Benedict – at this time of day. How wonderful.'

And stretching out her nervous, jewelled hand towards the overflowing ashtray she missed it by several deliberate inches and, gold chains and amber beads swinging, her long eyes narrowed but fixed speculatively upon her husband, she scattered cigarette ash lazily, provocatively, over the polished surface of the table and the deep pile of a Wilton carpet.

Poor Nola? Hardly that, concluded Miriam. Nola up to her tricks again, more likely, playing some devious game of her own. A game of power perhaps? Or a game, even; of sexuality? Catch me, chastise me, overpower me. But Miriam neither knew nor cared anything for games like that.

‘Benedict, I'd like a word with you,' said Eunice almost shouting the words because her mouth had gone dry again.

‘Yes?'

He was, unnervingly, at her disposal.

‘Well – if you have time, that is –'

‘Of course.'

She swallowed hard. ‘Oh – there's no rush. I'll be here all afternoon.'

What had he said to make her falter? Nothing. He had simply looked at her, knowing exactly what she wanted to say to him and how much of it was truth, how much a desperate and therefore clumsy invention; knowing exactly why she needed the money and how last month's allowance, which should have covered it, had been thrown away; knowing that she was a poor manager, an over-indulgent mother; knowing more about Toby, she supposed, his weakness, his incompetence, his easy, lovable, exploitable temperament than she knew herself. Things he would never tell her and which she would never believe in any case but which lay between them, heavy, bitter, without compassion. He would blame her, reprimand her, advise her, but he would not understand. She could not lean on him, could not turn to him for reassurance as badly – badly – she longed to do. Such a thing would have been unthinkable. She could never have survived the rebuff.
Almost
– and choking on her own injustice – she found herself hating her brother Benedict again.

Miriam, who had nothing to ask and therefore nothing to fear, smiled not fondly but perhaps appreciatively across the room at him. Naturally she had not been present at his birth but she knew that it had taken place in the middle of a frozen December, a black bitter night with snow drifting so high that the doctor's gig had foundered on the road to High Meadows, leaving Aaron Swanfield to deliver his own firstborn and not greatly welcome son, no doubt with clumsy hands and then to leave him unwrapped, almost forgotten in the cold room while he gave what comfort he could – and it would not have been much – to his dying wife.

Miriam – herself the child of a bright May morning – could perfectly understand that the world to Benedict must have seemed in those first moments to be a bleak and hostile place; the act of birth itself a conflict in which only he, not his adversary, had survived. Had life always appeared so to him? She shivered and then, with a quick return to her Maytime humour, gave him another quite playful smile.

‘We were discussing the problem of our young widow, my dear.'

‘Is she really such a problem?'

‘Ah well.' And Miriam became arch in her manner, ‘pretty Mimi' at her sweetest and most caressing. ‘That depends on you, dear boy. You are the head of the family, after all, are you not?'

‘I believe I am.'

‘Well then – I should not care to invite her to make her home with us, as seems only proper, and then find that I had acted against your wishes. Benedict dear – what would you like me to do?'

‘Miriam,' he said, his mouth faintly amused as it sometimes was with her, ‘I think you must do as you please.'

Good. It had been, it must always be, her intention. But just the same, even Mimi with all her skill and charm and daring and the security of the promise Benedict had made his father, had so far never challenged her husband's eldest son directly without making sure, beforehand, that it was an issue about which he did not greatly care.

Chapter Two

Sitting in the empty, suburban train, Claire Swanfield tried hard to remember the face of her young husband and failed utterly. He had been twenty-one when she had last seen him, a slender young man with a teasing smile, blue eyes, light brown hair, almost six feet in height with not enough weight to balance it, the loosely-knit frame of youth all hollows and angles, waiting for maturity and good living to fill him put.

He had been twenty-one and highly pleased with himself. She had been nineteen and on her honeymoon, shy and adoring and still not entirely certain how it had been allowed to happen. He was not only a young warrior, a mischievous Sir Galahad indulging himself in a little honest enjoyment before setting off to find the Holy Grail, but he was also a Swanfield. She was Claire Lyall, no one in particular, who had caught his roving eye at a tennis party at High Meadows and held it because that high-charged atmosphere of patriotism and sacrifice and young heroic death had been so apt to generate romance.

Looking back down the far, thin distance separating her from that other dimension, that other reality of ‘just before the war', a hundred times four years ago, she could, if only very faintly, catch a glimmer of herself as she had then been, the well-mannered, impersonal product of boarding school and finishing school, recently returned to Faxby and ill at ease there, believing herself to be an intruder in the fastidious life her mother shared with her elderly second husband, Mr Edward Lyall, legal adviser to the Swanfields. She had been serious, uncertain, conventional, intensely romantic, wonderfully naive, seeing Jeremy Swanfield as he had seen himself, a hero setting off on a great and glorious adventure, who had chosen, by some miracle she did not dare to question, to lay his sword at her astonished and grateful feet.

Love, or a physical attraction sufficiently intense to pass for love had flared between them and burned long enough to overcome all opposition. He was going to the front and at least the men of his family understood that he did not wish to go virgin. Their marriage had been three days and nights in a London hotel, her body willingly given, avidly taken, a physical exploration beyond which there had been no time to progress. They had made love for three days and then he had gone to France. She had returned to the familiar tensions of her mother's house, to bicker mildly with her mother's husband. And three weeks later he was dead.

She remembered not grief, not tears but the precise physical effect of a hammer blow. She had gone upstairs to her room, sat on her bed and waited while, in Edward's study just below her, her mother, the Swanfields, and Edward Lyall himself had discussed what to do with her, where to send her, to what she was entitled, to whom she belonged. For three days she had belonged to Jeremy Swanfield. And if, already, those three fragile days had begun to blur around their edges at least they had freed her from the restrictions of girlhood. And rising to her feet, slightly dizzy and still vaguely aware of the voices of Swanfield and Lyall authority in the room below her, she had packed her suitcase and the next morning, still in that state of shock which had made it possible to ignore her mother's anguish as to what the Swanfields would say, Edward Lyall's barbed enquiries as to why his wife had so little control over her daughter, she had field. Not far, perhaps, in actual distance, to the military hospitals, the casualty clearing stations, the waterlogged tents, the mud, the trench rats, the carnage of Jeremy's great adventure. But, in reality, a limitless, tortuous journey from which she would not return. She had left behind the child, the eager adolescent, the ecstatic young bride, all the many aspects of Claire Lyall with which she had been familiar. She had become ‘Swanfield'who dressed wounds, prepared gangrenous limbs for amputation, bathed eyes scorched and blinded by gas, mopped up the blood from severed arteries, spared a friendly gesture or a kind word, when she could dredge one up through the layers of bitter exhaustion, for men who were perishing from the inner cold of shell shock and the very many whose injuries were complicated by syphilis.

Her life as a young lady of Faxby had rapidly acquired the texture, of a distant dream, her mother's preoccupation with food and dress, with pleasing her husband and ‘with what the Swanfields would say'sounding to Claire like the prattlings of infancy, so that her letters home became short and infrequent and, just occasionally, scornful. She had not openly rebelled. She had simply
grown,
moved on. And then there had been Paul.

She had been twenty-one herself by then, a woman in terms of experience and capability who still looked like an untouched girl, slender and straight, black velvet eyes set wide apart, short dark hair hanging in a heavy fringe above black, perfectly arched eyebrows, an oval face with humour in it and, at times, a deceptive, almost oriental repose. At first glance she appeared not only attractive but most pleasingly feminine, even gentle, a young lady still, as her mother had intended and of whom her governesses might be justly proud. But, in reality, although the war had not hardened her nature, it had sharpened it, tunedit to a high degree of self-containment, emptied out of it every particle of sentimentality, every vestige of illusion. She no longer asked why the massacre was taking place. She knew there was no reason. But since it had happened and she was caught up in it and could not stop it, she functioned, coped, narrowed her horizons to fit the limits between one convoy of wounded and the next, acquiring the wariness of a survivor so that she desired only superficial relationships without commitment. It seemed best to her – in fact it seemed essential – to sacrifice the possibility of joy in order not to run the risk of pain, until Paul. And even then she had fought very hard.

BOOK: A Winter's Child
7.87Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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