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Illingworth House: 37 - Billberry Picking

Joe attacks John Illingworth when he sees him "carrying on'' with Helen.

John Waddington-Feather continues his story novel concerning the fortunes and misfortunes of a Yorkshire mill-owning family. To read earlier chapters please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/illingworth_house/

Quite unknown to Joe, Helen's affair continued into the summer of the next year, another long, hot summer when temperatures and unemployment rose to new records. Company after company went to the wall in Keighworth, including the foundry where Joe worked. He lost his job and was thrown on the dole with the rest of his workmates, including Mat and Harry.

Though they spent hours in their hen-pens and allotments, time still hung heavy. For weeks, all they did was sit in Joe's old railway carriage and smoke their pipes. The only change in their routine was signing on once a week and looking for non-existent jobs. The future looked bleak, indeed, and they became more and more depressed. Money became tighter and they did anything to make it run further. Mercifully, their wives were still in work and some of their children, which helped eke out the housekeeping funds.

When the bilberries began fruiting on the moors, they went gathering them for their wives to make jam. When there was a glut, they could sell them to the market for a few coppers. The best bilberries grew round the old quarries on the other side of town, the area where Helen and John did their courting. It was there, one afternoon, that Joe and his cronies set off on their bikes to pick bilberries.

The weather was perfect and they all looked unusually tanned, spending as they did, so much time outdoors. The ride out of town through Ingerworth and up to Cross Roads brought them on top of the Pennines. They were in a different world from the muck and grime they had left below and for a few hours they forgot the dole, the mills and the foundries. The day held promise. So did the pint they had promised themselves on the way back home.

They left their bikes in the same quarry that John Illingworth parked his car, unseen behind the old huts. Then, they scrambled up to the moors, which burgeoned black with the fruit clinging tenaciously to the soil. Soon, the trio were engrossed in picking berries. There was enough to pay for that pint on the way back and more, as they picked away, revelling in the sun and the dry peaty scent coming from the ling and heather. From time to time, they straightened up to ease their backs and enjoy the stretching views. They could see for miles up there and the misery of the dole queue and all that went with it, were forgotten a while.

They had picked bilberries there for years and revelled in the fresh air, the solitude and silence. It was idyllic and Joe began singing quietly to himself. Something he hadn't done for weeks.

The bilberries grew best on the banks rolling round the southern end of the quarry. The ground gleamed with them, they grew so thick and Joe's basket began to fill rapidly. The berries were big with juice and his fingers became stained. So did his mouth. He was back in his boyhood again, free as the moors and the scene about him. He disturbed the sheep as he picked. They eyed him in their dull, glazed way before suddenly scurrying off and hiding in the bracken. It was as it had always been and it felt good. The sun was on his back and the heat lifting off the heather warmed him through till he perspired freely.

Little by little, he worked his way up a bank till he had reached the crest, his basket full. The others were some distance away and he was about to shout to them when, as he looked over the crest, he was startled to see a couple courting in the hollow the other side; even more shocked when he realised they were half-clothed. He drew back at once, but even as he turned away, it registered who they were. It was their Helen and Abe Illingworth's lad.

He winced as if in pain, then withdrew, hardly believing what he had seen. When he reached the bottom of the bank, he sat down to collect himself, but anger began to well uncontrollably inside him. By this time, his friends had re-joined him, their baskets full, too. As they drew near, they thought he was unwell, for he had his head in his hands; but when he looked up, his face was contorted with anger and he found it difficult to speak.

Mat asked what was wrong, but Joe could only nod at the crest above. Then he burst out, "Ower theer! Our Helen's wi' a lad carryin' on!" And before they knew what was happening, Joe stood up and went striding up the slope shouting as he went, bawling at the top of his voice what he was going to do to Abe Illingworth's lad. The other two cottoned on and raced after him.

Helen and John heard him coming and dressed rapidly in a panic. They were still dressing when Joe appeared and slid down the incline into the hollow where they stood shocked and shame-faced. John was till fumbling with his shirt buttons and Helen her blouse when Joe lurched towards them, red in the face with anger.

Neither spoke a word but clung to each other as Joe advanced. "Get thee out o' t' way," he thundered at Helen. But she stood her ground and clung to John.

"Mr Gibson can't we talk things over?" he stammered, backing off.

He got no further for Joe was on him, smashing his fist in his face and sending him reeling to the ground. Before he could recover, Joe had pulled him to his feet and began pouring blows on him. Stunned by the initial blow, John could only try to ward him off, as Helen screamed at Joe, pleading with him to let John alone. At that point, Mat and Harry appeared and dragged him off. He struggled violently with them cursing John Illingworth and his family all the time, as he tried to get at him. "The dirty bastard!" he roared. "He's had our lass! Let me go an' I'll kill him!" And kill him he might have done, if his two friends hadn't held him fast.

John Illingworth stayed kneeling a moment, stunned and spitting blood. A deep gash in his eyebrow also poured blood and he began to retch. He remained there glassy-eyed a while, then shook his head and slowly got to his feet. Mat urged him to get away, as he and Harry hung on to Joe who was still shouting threats. Helen took John's arm and led him off, while the others tried to calm Joe and give them chance to get away.

With difficulty, she supported John down the sandy track and they staggered to the car. She was sobbing uncontrollably and he was bleeding profusely from his eye, nose and mouth. As they struggled down, scarcely knowing where they were going, a colony of jackdaws from the quarry face got up and followed them, cackling at them all the way down the track.


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