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Authors: Freda Lightfoot

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The Promise

BOOK: The Promise
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The Promise

F
REDA
L
IGHTFOOT

The Promise

 

San Francisco, 1926

 

I write in some distress to inform you that I am again in financial difficulties. Not for the first time, I know, but I fear on this occasion I may not recover without your help. I mention no names but iniquitous charges are to be brought. Bankruptcy looms and my situation has become intolerable. I would not ask otherwise.

You may already feel that you have paid too high a price, but I disagree. Weren’t you always so much luckier than I? Don’t I deserve the same luck in life? I know you will understand why I chose this particular messenger to carry this letter. He will act as a salutary reminder about how much power I have.

I trust you will not hesitate to assist in my hour of need. If not for the close relationship we once enjoyed, then because if you do not, the consequences could be dire, not least for yourself. I’m sure your children would be most interested to hear the whole story.

I look forward to hearing from you, and to receiving a large banker’s draft with all due speed. You owe me this, Georgia, in return for the promise I’ve kept all these years, a state of affairs you no doubt wish to continue.

A shaft of sunlight slanted in through the open window of the flat, together with the usual city sounds: the constant hum of traffic, the klaxon of a police car going about its business, a child indulging in a noisy tantrum. It also brought dust, a stifling summer heat, and an intense feeling of claustrophobia to the young woman patiently pouring tea into fine china cups.

Chrissie Kemp set a small mahogany table close to the invalid’s side, covered it with a lace doily, then carefully put two ginger biscuits on a plate and placed them upon it with the teacup so that her mother would only have to put out her hand to reach them. The older woman eyed the result of her daughter’s efforts with disdain.

‘No cake again? And do close the window, dear. It’s creating a dreadful draught round my neck.’

Chrissie stifled a sigh as she reluctantly did as she
was told, feeling even more trapped by the stuffy room. Her mother was not a patient woman, but she seemed even more crotchety than usual today. ‘I queued half the morning, hoping to find some dried fruit or ground almonds, even a few cherries, since you’re tired of plain sponge, but there were none to be had. And we can’t afford to waste too many eggs in cake-making, Mum. Sorry, but there it is.’ She tried a smile, but received only a frowning response.

‘It is absolutely appalling that the government dares to continue with this iniquitous rationing. What did we win the war for, I wonder?’

‘Don’t let your tea get cold,’ Chrissie gently chided, not wishing to go over this old ground for the hundredth time.

‘Oh, do stop fussing, girl. Where are my pills? I’m getting one of my heads. Don’t sit there looking stubborn. I need one now.’ From an array of small bottles on the tray, Chrissie dutifully tapped out the required dose into a small cup to set beside the biscuits. She watched with sadness in her eyes as Vanessa greedily swallowed them with a slurp of tea. Though what good they would do, she couldn’t imagine. Chrissie was quite sure the doctor only prescribed them in order that he may continue to call and add another fee to his steadily growing bill.

Nor would the introduction of the new health service this month make the slightest difference. Vanessa Kemp had no truck with anything that was free. If something did not cost a considerable sum then it was worthless in her eyes, a philosophy that had cost her dear throughout
her life, and was really rather ironic when you considered the pittance they now lived on.

There was only Chrissie’s small wage coming in, as her mother had never quite acquired the knack of working for a living, apart from the occasional foray selling handkerchiefs or perfume in Harrods or Harvey Nichols. She’d grow bored after a few months and walk out in a huff, although the last time Chrissie suspected she was dismissed for sneaking one too many shots of gin behind the counter.

Now they were behind with the rent, and would be out on the street were it not for Chrissie constantly dipping into her precious savings, and sweet-talking the landlord into allowing them a little longer to catch up. Not that these efforts on her part prevented him from sending out a constant stream of eviction notices, which any day now he would be sure to act upon.

The doctor too would be lucky if he ever got paid, although Chrissie did wonder if perhaps he took payment in kind from his still-beautiful patient. With her
chestnut-brown
hair, hazel-green eyes, porcelain complexion and deep-red lips there was no denying that her mother had lost none of her sex appeal, despite being past the dreaded age of forty. The pair were certainly very cosy, and there was nothing Vanessa loved more than being the centre of attention, particularly where men were concerned.

Chrissie did her best to cope but hated the idea of squandering every penny she possessed on attempting to pay off a huge unmanageable debt. It was rather like putting a finger in a dyke to stop a flood. But she lived in
hope that she could stir Vanessa out of her depression, stop her drinking, and bring back the woman she’d once been.

Chrissie dreamt of escape, of release from this straitjacket of a life she inhabited. She longed to have a life of her own, to start her own business, perhaps a small bookshop. If she were ever allowed the opportunity.

Feeling bored and slightly irritable at having spent a precious Saturday afternoon once again confined to the house doing domestic chores, Chrissie picked up a newspaper, a copy of the
Westmorland Gazette
, and flicked idly through the pages while sipping her tea.

Her mother had been born in Westmorland, and despite her absolute refusal to speak of her birthplace or her family, still insisted on having the paper posted to her in London. Being a local newspaper there wasn’t any mention of the Olympic Games, due to take place shortly in August, or the recent dock strikes. As if the outside world did not exist, it was largely concerned with the price fat lambs made at auction, the weather, a report of a man charged with poaching, and advertisements for home helps and farmhands. But then an advert a page or two in caught Chrissie’s eye. It read:

Why not pay a visit this summer to Rosegill Hall in the beautiful English Lake District, a charming old house with spectacular views of the Langdales. It even boasts its own boathouse and jetty on Lake Windermere. This historic property, set in its own woodland gardens, has been converted into
delightful holiday cottages and bed & breakfast accommodation. The owner, Georgia Cowper, offers a warm welcome to guests.

There followed a telephone number and postal address for bookings. The thought flitted across Chrissie’s mind that she couldn’t remember when she’d last had a holiday. Before the war, probably, as a young girl, when they used to go down to Brighton for a week each summer.

‘I suppose you’ll be going out later?’ Vanessa remarked in self-pitying tones, interrupting her thoughts.

‘We might go to see Katharine Hepburn in
Song of Love
. It’s showing at the Alhambra.’

‘Does Peter like musicals? How very odd for a man.’

Chrissie gave a rueful grin. ‘Probably not, but he’s happy to let me choose. He’s very obliging.’

Perhaps too obliging at times. Peter would indulge any choice she cared to make, in particular a date for their wedding, if only she would accept his proposal. He repeated his offer almost on a weekly basis, in case it had slipped her mind. The trouble was Chrissie wasn’t even sure if she loved him. She was fond of him, but was that enough?

Admittedly there wasn’t exactly a stream of suitors paying her calls, but then when did she ever find the opportunity to meet new men? And surely she wasn’t entirely unattractive? She was slim with long legs and a reasonable figure, soft brown hair and eyes, if a rather pale complexion and unflattering nose. There were creases between her eyes, so Chrissie was making an extra effort
not to frown too much. Her mouth was perhaps a touch wide and didn’t smile anywhere near enough.

Marriage, even to dull, boring Peter, might be infinitely preferable to spending her life waiting upon a hypochondriac mother. Had she not experienced both true love and marriage, however briefly, it might have been easier to come to terms with second best. But at only twenty-one it seemed rather young to admit defeat and marry simply to escape her mother’s tyranny.

‘Holy matrimony, dear girl, is not all it’s cracked up to be,’ Vanessa warned, as if reading her thoughts. ‘You would be foolish to risk it a second time. Not that anyone would look twice at a mouse like you.’

Chrissie said nothing. She had learnt long since not to engage in pointless arguments with Vanessa. And since her parents’ marriage had not turned out to be quite as happy as her mother had hoped, Vanessa’s opinion was somewhat jaundiced, to say the least. But then Aaran Kemp had walked out on his wife when Chrissie had been but a small child, leaving his non-grieving wife with a legacy of debt, one there seemed little hope of ever paying off.

The moment tea was over Chrissie quickly cleared away the cups and plates, hoping for a short walk in the park, then an hour’s quiet read in her room with the windows flung wide. After a week stuck in an office, filing and typing, and her weekends devoted to domestic duties, she snatched any spare moment that offered privacy, fresh air and freedom. But just as she was hanging up the tea towel to dry, the doorbell rang and Peter arrived, predictably early.

* * *

The evening at the cinema followed the usual pattern of all the other evenings they spent together. Peter would steer her down the aisle to their seats with his hand protectively glued to her elbow, almost as if he thought her incapable of walking unaided. He always insisted on paying for the tickets, and would buy her an ice cream in the interval without even asking if she wanted one. Then there would be the usual fumble under cover of darkness with him surreptitiously pressing her knee, or sneaking a hand around her shoulder which somehow lodged itself on her breast. Chrissie would be so preoccupied keeping track of his wandering hands that she would frequently lose the plot on what was happening on screen.

Afterwards he would walk her home and steal a brief goodnight kiss. That was all she did allow him, even after twelve months of walking out.

‘Would you like a stroll in the park?’ he offered. ‘It’s a clear moonlit night.’

The prospect of more tussles beneath the trees or on a park bench was more than Chrissie could contemplate this evening. ‘I’m rather tired, sorry. Saturday is always a busy day for me, with the washing to get done and various other chores.’

His eyes gleamed. ‘It would be so much easier for you if we were married.’

Chrissie wondered how that could be possible since she’d then also have a husband to care for, as well as a mother. ‘Let’s not talk about that tonight, shall we? You know I feel it’s far too soon for us to be talking of marriage. I’m not ready for all of that yet.’

‘I don’t see why,’ he said, in that small peevish voice he adopted, rather like a small boy denied a toffee apple. ‘You wouldn’t have to work at all if we were married.’

‘Why wouldn’t I?’

‘You’d have no need to work, since I can perfectly well afford to keep a wife.’ Rather as he might say he could afford to keep a dog.

Chrissie turned away and slotted her key in the lock, thankful to see the flat was in darkness, which meant Vanessa had gone to bed, so there would be no grilling about what she’d got up to. Her mother loathed the idea of Chrissie ever marrying again, no doubt for selfish reasons. Not that she had any inclination of doing so. One day it might be nice to find a good man, a kindred spirit, but not yet.

All Chrissie really wanted was to be free of duty and responsibility, to find some contentment and a purpose to her life. To make her own choices.

Peter was still talking. ‘I’ll call on Tuesday, shall I? Seven o’clock as usual. I thought we might try the new Italian restaurant that’s opened on the high street, or we could go down the West End, if you prefer. Whatever you wish.’ He was as predictable in his habits as night following day, turning up at her door regular as clockwork every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Chrissie had never quite worked out why these particular days and no other.

There were times when she had to stifle the desire to tell him what she’d really like was for him to go away and never call again. But that would have been unkind. Peter could be good company, and, apart from the odd grope
in the cinema, never anything but a perfect gentleman. She hated the idea of being sucked into a routine, and every now and then a small spark of rebellion would light within and Chrissie would make a feeble bid for freedom. She’d complained once that she’d no wish to be taken for granted, and Peter had showered her with flowers, chocolates and gifts for weeks, till she’d insisted he stop.

Now she said, ‘Let me check my diary. I rather think Rosie, my friend from work, asked me to go out with her.’

Disappointment seemed to drain the life from his thin angular face, and Chrissie was instantly filled with pity and guilt, a feeling that seemed to mark the nature of their relationship.

‘You should put
me
first, not Rosie; you’re my fiancée, after all.’

‘No, Peter, I’m not,’ she told him, with exemplary patience. ‘We aren’t engaged, remember? How many times must I remind you that I have no wish to marry again, not now, maybe not ever.’

‘Don’t be silly. Every pretty girl wants to be a wife and mother. You’ll change your mind, and I can wait till you’re ready.’

As always, Chrissie gave up. Where was the point in arguing with him? ‘I’ll give you a ring from the office on Tuesday, or pop in the bank to see you,’ she cheerfully informed him as she let herself into the flat, determined to stick to her guns for once. Didn’t she too often allow other people to make decisions for her? Ever the good girl trying to please. It really had to stop.

* * *

It was barely ten o’clock but the flat felt empty and eerily quiet as Chrissie plumped up cushions, and folded away newspapers and magazines her mother had left lying about, tidying them away into the understairs cupboard before going to bed. One glance in the cocktail cabinet told her Vanessa had retired early with a half bottle of gin.

Chrissie had taken to removing bottles from the cocktail cabinet, or pouring the contents away. A pointless exercise, as the next day another would have appeared in its place. It was amazing how fit and capable this ailing woman could suddenly become when needing to replenish her supplies. Chrissie had tried many times to gently point out to her mother how she was ruining her life with drink, and popping pills she didn’t need, and by shutting herself indoors for every hour of the day. But Vanessa would only weep and say that Chrissie didn’t understand.

‘You don’t appreciate how hard my life has been – an endless trail of bitter disappointment.’

Chrissie had agreed that life was indeed full of disappointments, that she too had suffered, losing the one man she could ever love back in 1945, just as the war ended. ‘How cruel was that?’ she had asked her mother.

BOOK: The Promise
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