The factory walk was completed without incident and Rachel and Cynthia arrived at the office with their ears unscathed by insulting verbal thrusts. There they found Ralph Marshall sitting astride Rachel's swivel chair, his arms folded on the padded back-rest. Stuck between two fingers was a burning cigarette. ‘Things still quiet?’ he asked.
Cynthia determinedly kept her eyes off the cigarette. ‘Not a peep,’ she said. ‘I reckon they're all scared of you.’
‘It was certainly impressive the way he laid into Sid,’ remarked Rachel as she stuffed her canvas shopping bag in the metal cabinet.
Ralph puffed smoke into the air. ‘I wonder no-one's told them off before.’
‘Probably because we've never complained,’ said Rachel, wafting the fumes away. ‘You know how it is; men think girls are immature if they make a fuss. I did mention it to Mr Hudspith. He suggested I ignored them and paid more heed to him.’ Inwardly, Rachel winced. The words were meant to be humorous; they had come out all wrong and would doubtless be misconstrued. Eric's reputation would be ruined. Unwittingly, she shook her head, wishing she could retract the statement. She remembered the episode very well. Eric had placated her after a particularly bad ordeal, then tweaked her ear and called her a silly billy. His remark about paying him more attention had been in relation to distributing the invitations for a birthday celebration - his sixtieth. He would find the faux pas amusing; she did not.
‘And did you?’ enquired Ralph.
Rachel coloured and said, ‘Of course not,’ a shade too abruptly.
Cynthia diverted Ralph's scrutiny by relating an occurrence from her own past, when she was manhandled by an oversized and overzealous neighbour and received a hiding from her father for reporting such a trivial matter.
Snorting disapproval, Rachel said, ‘Your father, if you don't mind my saying, was out of his mind.’
Ralph dismounted Rachel's chair and swivelled it to its correct position, holding it steady while she sat down. His hand fleetingly brushed her shoulder and as he moved away he muttered something inaudible. Rachel gazed in astonishment at his departing form. Had he really couched the phrase ‘silly billy’ or was it her imagination?
‘Afraid not. I'm going up north again.’
‘You'll need clean clothes.’
‘I'll call home on the way.’
‘See you, then, Rachel. Be good.’
It was as negative a parting shot as Rachel had ever heard. A desperate sickness clawed the lining of her belly, but her external control was rigid. She would not let it affect her.
Please, sweet Jesus, don't let me be influenced by his disregard.
WORK ground to a halt with Ralph and Ben Collins both out for the afternoon. Cynthia took advantage of the lull to make provisional plans for decorating the nursery, determining the style of maternity clothes to buy, and recording likely names for the baby. Rachel told the story about Wildacre and the rumpus at her folks' house, recounting the way her mother stormed out after being threatened.
‘I can't see how your Mum gets into Wildacre,’ Cynthia said. ‘It's been locked up for yonks.’
Since Rachel did not know either, she merely shrugged. Her mind had moved on to the recent invasion of the playing field. She gave an account of her discovery, making Cynthia giggle when she described the sandwiches and the makeshift bed.
‘I bet there's an army of vagrants,’ cried Cynthia. ‘They've probably taken over all the shelters and transformed them, set up a new estate on Hodder's property.’
‘I've a good mind to go back and explore.’
Cynthia cautioned her to be careful, commenting that there might be dangerous men lying in wait for vulnerable young women and recommending that she and Curtis accompany her to survey the site.
The offer did not appeal to Rachel. There would be no stirring of adrenalin with three of them tramping the field and scaring off the newcomers. In order not to offend, she said, ‘I'm only kidding, I won't be going anywhere near the field.’
IT was uncanny the way their house cloaked itself in emptiness when
A couple of woofs at the living room window returned Rachel's thoughts to the planned walk. She let herself in the house, deposited her things on the chair, and surrendered her face to the animal's sloppy welcome. ‘Fetch your lead, Rex,’ she said, her keenness to get to the field and commence the exploration driving all thought of food from her head. All she needed to do was change her footwear and coat.
Eric rang as she was pocketing the rubber torch
Rachel assured him that she was fine and professed to missing him too. She speculated about soliciting his company on the expedition, but persuaded herself that it was better to go alone. He was, after all, unused to trekking in fields and would treat with disdain her plan to grub about in underground haunts. Accordingly, in response to his proposition to contribute pie and chips and a bottle of wine, she said she was committed to visiting her father.
‘Not to worry, dear girl. I will arrange another evening. And lunch.’
‘You're not upset, are you, Eric?’
‘A trifle downhearted would be a more accurate description of my condition. An evening in your engaging presence would have been so enjoyable. But, ho-hum, another occasion will suffice, so long as I know you are fit and well.’
THE lamp nearest to the field's entrance was defunct, but those around the perimeter cast an eerie light over the four long shelters. Shadows of surrounding palings resembled a city skyline, high-rise blocks of alternate sizes prostrate against the spectral moss and lichen-encrusted footway.
‘Don't go too far,’ commanded Rachel as she uncoupled the lead from Rex's collar. As expected he ran directly to the first shelter, plainly confident he would find a duplicate parcel to the last. Rachel shone the torch and followed. Apprehensively, shouldering the cold wall to steady her, she trod the steps and entered the place where, a long time ago, refuge was sought from bombs or parents, depending on the generation.
Directing the beam to where Rex snuffled and pawed, foraging in the dark for a sandwich or two, she crept forward until the sleeping area came into view. She gave a sharp intake of breath. The bed had been, what her mother termed, made-up, and an eiderdown added. Closer examination showed it to be peppermint green and practically new.
Suddenly, from the bowels of the shelter, came an echoing yowl. Rachel shot to an upright position. Her nerve ends crawled with alarm. Calling Rex to heel, she switched off the light and plunged herself into darkness, the only hint of illumination coming from an external source. She stumbled towards that source with her arms stretched in front of her like a sleepwalking drunk. Then, unaware that she had reached the steps, she tripped and dropped her torch. Nothing would induce her to stop and retrieve it.
Whimpering like an idiot, she continued to grope her way out, falling through the opening and landing on her belly on the grass. Encouragingly, Rex licked her face before shooting after two fleeing cats, one emerging from the shelter slightly ahead of the other, plainly raring to get home and lick its wounds.
Rachel giggled uncontrollably in her recumbent pose until eventually, conceding that only so much adventure could be tolerated she rolled onto her side and scrambled to her feet. Another day, possibly in springtime, she might feel bold enough to come back for the torch.
RACHEL fairly scooted up the side passage, so eager was she to impart the farcical affair to her father. He would tell her she was half-witted for going there in the first place, but equally he would enjoy the humorous side of the anecdote. On the other hand, her mother would show no interest at all. Not for her the stress of worrying over her daughter's welfare. She would condemn the lack of common sense and dismiss the exploration as not worthy of analysis. Under the circumstances, perhaps she should desist reporting the exploit until she and her father were alone.
The door was unlocked and Rachel entered the kitchen, rapping the door to signify her presence. Toby sat bowed over the kitchen table with his head resting on his folded arms. There was no sign of her mother. Separated pages of the evening paper littered the floor. Rex was all for planting a slobbery kiss on Toby's neck, but believing her father was asleep Rachel held the dog on close rein. In the end, going along with her whispered order to lie down, he slumped on the fireside rug.
Toby lifted his head. Rachel had never seen him look so haggard: his skin was like parchment, his eyes red-rimmed and watery. ‘Gosh, Dad, whatever's the matter.’
Her father gave a feeble smile and pulled himself vertical. ‘I felt a bit under the weather. I'm all right now.’
Suspecting the exasperation over her mother was taking its toll, Rachel did not press him; nor did she enquire where her mother was.
Toby made to rise from the chair, asking if she wanted tea. Rachel put her hand to his shoulder and pushed him back down. ‘You stay there,’ she said. ‘I'll see to it.’
It transpired that he had not eaten since breakfast. He had worked through his lunch break and could not now be bothered to prepare anything. Rachel made him a cup of instant mushroom soup to be going on with, while she did baked beans, black pudding, and chips for them both.
She marked with satisfaction the glow returning to his face as he filled his belly; it struck her how incapable he was when left alone. It was all very well her mother saying he could take care of himself; after a long and industrious day he hardly had the energy to stand let alone cook. And what if he was taken ill? Who'd even know?
‘Perhaps I should have a key again, Dad.’
Toby looked at her in surprise. ‘What for?’
‘Well, in case.’
‘You might be taken poorly. If Mum was out, you'd need to get in touch with me and I'd charge round and I might not be able to get in and you'd be ...’
Rachel ceased jabbering and looked self-consciously at her father.
Toby steered a chip into a residue of baked bean sauce. ‘It's a good idea,’ he said. ‘I don't for the life of me know why it was taken off you in the first place.’ He pushed his plate away and sipped some water. ‘That was lovely, girl, just what I needed to get my strength back. Leaving the table, he went to the dresser drawer and took from it a key ring and two keys. ‘Here, back and front. They're our spares. Bring them back when you've got new ones cut.’
Rachel thanked him and slipped them into her pocket.
After tea, she tied her mother's apron around her waist and began the washing up. Through the window she saw shiny specks, marking an aeroplane's location in the starlit sky. Toby moved to her side, a tea towel in his hand. As she plunged her hands into soapy water Rachel thought how cosy it was, the two of them sharing a domestic chore, and how much she missed
THERE was a faint glimmer in Wildacre's landing window. Moving stealthily, her eyes riveted to the red and blue stained glass, Rachel crossed the road in order to scrutinise at close quarters. The light flickered brightly for a minute or two, then dwindled to a motionless glow before disappearing altogether. Feeling somewhat unnerved, she pulled hard on the dog lead and hastened away, ignoring Rex's yelp as the choke chain tightened around his throat. She maintained her momentum until they turned into
Rex ran ahead. By the time she got the door open he was beside himself with agitation, darting from one side of the doorway to the other. ‘Be patient, Rexie,’ she scolded. ‘You'll get fed in a jiffy.’
Stepping over the threshold, she was accosted by a draught shooting down the stairs, the result of the bedroom window and the front door being open at the same time. At first she thought she had forgotten to close it before going out, until she remembered that she had not been upstairs during her short visitation, nor had she noticed the draught.
A quick dash from the hall to the living room, and then to the kitchen, was unproductive; therefore he must be upstairs. She flew up to the bedroom, expecting to see him packing his bag. All his gear would be laid on the bed in the order he wanted it packed. But at the doorway, she stopped dead, and held two hands to her face as if she had been struck.
The bed was as tidy as when she left that morning, but
Mechanically, she closed the drawers, then moved to shut the window. There must surely be a good reason for him to take everything, she thought, trying to disregard the dull pain in her gut.
(to be continued)