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Illingworth House: Chance Child - Part One: 30 - An Unromantic Setting

...Helen came in nervously and glanced round. Then her eyes set on John and a smile lit her face. His heart raced and he jumped to his feet to greet her, taking her by the arm and leading her to his table...

John Illingworth and office girl Helen meet by arrangement in a café.

John Waddington-Feather continues his saga concerning the fortunes and misfortunes of a Yorkshire mill owning family.

Timpson's was one of those scruffy little cafes up a back-street which existed on lunchtime office custom. It served cheap meals and takeout sandwiches and was packed each lunchtime with office clerks and shop assistants. The rest of the day, it was dead and didn't revive until the following lunchtime. It stood up a dirty back-street in the middle of the commercial district of Bradford. Offices either side loomed high and cut out much of the light. Its dirty windows filtered the light still further so that its gas lighting was on permanently and the strained yellow light made it dingier than ever.

Some office workers snatched a late snack there if they'd been working late, otherwise by six o'clock it was deserted. The day he had arranged to meet Helen, John left early and seated himself at a table well out of sight, even though there was little chance he and Helen would be seen. He also slipped the waitress a tip to keep the adjacent tables free, just to make sure they would be left in peace. He needn't have bothered. The place was dead.

A less romantic place would have been hard to imagine. No subdued lights, no dewy-eyed, discreet waiters, no soft music. The light, like much else, was dirty; the waitress chewed gum and eyed them all the time from behind her greasy counter. Odd whiffs of stale washing-up water drifted in through the serving hatch and added their flavour to the cocktail of steak, grease and gas.

At lunch-time, the menu offered you meat and two veg or a variety of meat sandwiches. At some indefinable hour in the afternoon, all that was available were tea and rock cakes growing rockier by the minute. By that time, too, the oilcloth on the tables had been wiped and thin whirls of grease set in for the rest of the day. Timpsons had never risen to tablecloths.

John entered first and lit a cigarette, watching the minute hand on a grimy, wall clock creep agonisingly to six. An apology for a cough came six times from the clock, which then moved on to five past six. At ten past, when the first doubts were beginning to niggle him, Helen came in nervously and glanced round. Then her eyes set on John and a smile lit her face. His heart raced and he jumped to his feet to greet her, taking her by the arm and leading her to his table.

She muttered something about having had to post some letters, which had delayed her. By this time, they were seated and he fiddled with his tie and tried to remember a rehearsed apology, but nothing came. He couldn't take his eyes off her, nor did she stop smiling at him. Both were lost for words for a moment then spontaneously they burst out laughing.

He reached across the table and held her hand, apologising yet again for making such a fool of her, but she interrupted him and said she should have known better and called him 'sir' all the time. The waitress came with their tea and rock-cakes and they fell silent before her sniffing and staring. Then she withdrew and John told Helen to stop calling him 'sir'.

"I'm John and you're Helen when we're alone. OK?" All the while, he held her hand and threaded her eyes with his.

"I hope your parents weren't too hard on you," he said.

"They're not my parents. They're my sister and her husband, but they've been like parents since mine died in the flu epidemic," she said.

"I'm sorry," he replied softly. "I lost my mother also then." At least they had that in common.

She nibbled her cake and sipped her tea, basking in his light. She bewitched him and he thought how beautiful she looked, for the blush never left her face. He listened intently as she recounted what had happened after he had left her. No, her sister and Joe hadn't blamed her for what had happened. As far as they were concerned, all the fault lay with him, no matter how she tried to explain. "Joe was very angry and told me never to see you again. He said you were like your father and he didn't want me having anything to do with your family. He didn't want me to come and work here in the first place. He's got something against your father from the past but I don't know the details. He clams up every time I try to find out. But I did hear from one of the other girls that I'd get the push for going with you. She'd overheard your father speaking to Mary Calow about me and she's been watching me like a hawk ever since."

Her lip quivered slightly when she mentioned losing her job and John regretted bitterly taking her home. "You won't lose your job, Helen," he said firmly. "You have my word, and in any case dad isn't that sort. He knows it was my fault. And you're wrong about Miss Calow. She thinks a great deal about you and is always going on about how efficient you are. I've never known that happen before. She really does like you. I'd say she was being protective." He laughed and his laugh was infectious. What he had said made her feel better.

Before they knew it, the clock had struck seven and the girl was hovering about waiting to clear up. Helen said she would miss her bus if she didn't go, but he offered to run her home. Anything to give them more precious seconds alone together. She took up his offer but said he would have to drop her the other side of Albert Park where the bus stopped. That way, she would arrive home at her usual time and Joe would suspect nothing. He agreed and they ordered another cup of tea, which was slopped down before them by the waitress.

By the time they walked back to the office, the place was locked up and deserted. Only John Illingworth's and another car remained in the parking lot behind, a red Aston Martin. Harry Clemence was working late again. By chance, Clemence had strolled to the window to stretch his legs as they walked to Illingworth's car. He took off his glasses and polished them vigorously before replacing them, then yawned hugely and stretched his arms. He stopped and pulled back from the window. He'd recognised John's passenger as she climbed into his M.G.

Clemence smiled quietly to himself as they drove off. He said nothing the next day when Sir Abe quizzed him about his son; the more that little romance bloomed the better for him. He made a point of telling Rosemary all about it when he saw her next.

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