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Illingworth House: Chance Child - Part One: 100 - John Sees His Son

...The boy's satchel and books lay strewn about the room and along one wall was a bookcase packed full. Near the bed, tucked into one corner stood a small desk, which Joe had made, with his homework on it. A night-light near the bed lit up the boy's face. He lay on his back deep in sleep with one arm on the coverlet.

And as he gazed, John Illingworth saw himself in the boy...

John Illingworth sees his sleeping son, then receives an assurance from Joe.

To read earlier episodes of John Waddington-Feather's deeply moving novel please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/illingworth_house/

That night he visited Prospect Street. Mary had been working on Joe for some time to let John see his son at home, at their home. Joe's opinion of him had slowly changed since Mary Calow had explained. The account in the paper of John's being shot down and injured swung him over to letting him come, and Mary Calow's account of why John hadn't contacted Helen all those years before had made Joe feel guilty, so he was glad John was coming. He guessed what John had gone through with his injuries for Joe himself had been badly injured in the first war. They were all older, too, and Joe had mellowed like the rest. He was sixty and Sir Abe an old man in his seventies.

But as John's visit grew closer, Joe felt less and less comfortable. What could he say now that he realised John had told him the truth all those years ago? How would he feel when he saw him again? It would be the first time they had had any contact since Joe had ordered John out of the house twelve years earlier. Much had happened since then.

John had said he would visit while the boy was asleep. He hadn't seen him for some time and his son wouldn't recognise him, might even be afraid when he saw his face. Since the outbreak of war, those clandestine meetings in the cemetery had become fewer and during his long stay in hospital, John hadn't seen his son at all. It was Mary Calow who had been the go-between and told him how things were.

John Greenwood had long known Joe and Mary weren't his real parents. He called them aunt and uncle, but he had picked up whisperings that he was the son of someone posh, someone who had put his mother in the family way, and he felt ashamed. The subject was taboo down Prospect Street and Joe and Mary never enlightened him till much later. He knew that what folk said was true for there was only his mother's maiden name on her gravestone.

Then there were those awkward conspiracies of silence whenever the subject of his mother and father came up in company. When his father's name was mentioned, it was always said with bitterness. Joe made sure of that, but John Greenwood didn't find that out for years.

The boy's grandfather didn't help matters. Sir Abe still clung to the fond hope that his son would marry and produce an heir, but that hope was fading fast. He couldn't bring himself to acknowledge his grandson and had made a bed of nails for both of them in the past. They were still lying on it.

The walk across the moors had given John a good appetite and he enjoyed his supper. It gave him new heart for the meeting ahead, which he'd been apprehensive about. It was dark by the time he arrived and the glow from the gas-light halfway down the street barely reached the Gibsons' house. Both the house and street looked smaller since his last visit and the area had a run-down look.

A dog barked in the house opposite as he parked his car. The two spinsters who lived there peered out from behind their curtains as they had done in the past. They, too, looked older and run-down. Then the curtains were drawn and he was left by himself to fumble in the half-light with the gate-latch. Mary heard him and pulled their curtains back. A warm light fell on him and seconds later Mary appeared, welcoming him and holding back the thick draft-curtains just inside the door. He fumbled past them and almost stumbled into the tiny living-room.

Joe stood awkwardly by the fire waiting to greet him and as John stepped into the light, he saw his face. Joe's craggy features remained unchanged as he saw John, but his eyes narrowed slightly as if in pain. He stepped forward and offered his hand which John shook, then he beckoned him to a chair, telling Mary to put the kettle on.

Joe sat opposite examining John closely. Both said nothing for a moment, till John asked if he could smoke and offered Joe a cigarette. Joe declined and took up his pipe and that broke the ice. John asked about his son and they talked about him for some time. Joe said how well he was doing at school, what a good rugby player and cricketer he was, what a fine reader, like his mother.

Then Joe said quietly, "Jerry made a right mess o' thee, didn't he? Mary
Calow telled us all about thee." and leaned forward and squeezed John's arm.

"You caught a blighty yourself in the first war, didn't you, Joe?" said John.

"Aye," he replied slowly. "But nowt like thine."

Their conversation drifted to the war. "It'll soon be ower," said Joe. "Nah they've crossed t'Rhine, it's nobbut a question of time."

They talked about the war at some length then spoke of Mary Calow and her husband and her life down south. John said what a beautiful home they had and how happy they both were, how they had nursed him during his convalescence. She was a saint, he said, and Joe concurred. Her steadfastness had helped them through some bad times.

At length, Mary asked if John would like to see his son, who was asleep upstairs. "He's growin' fast," she said," an' sleeps like a log." Nevertheless they tip-toed upstairs and Mary opened the door to his room. It was tiny, nothing like the size of the room John Illingworth had grown up in, but the boy had made the most of it. There was a photograph on the wall of a rugby team with Joe on it as a much younger man, taken the year Keighworth had been in the final at Wembley, with Joe as captain sitting proudly in the middle.

The boy's satchel and books lay strewn about the room and along one wall was a bookcase packed full. Near the bed, tucked into one corner stood a small desk, which Joe had made, with his homework on it. A night-light near the bed lit up the boy's face. He lay on his back deep in sleep with one arm on the coverlet.

And as he gazed, John Illingworth saw himself in the boy. The resemblance was astonishing. His shock of blond hair and ruddy cheeks reminded him of a photograph he had had taken when he was about John Greenwood's age. Sir Abe still kept it in his room. The likeness was unmistakable. But there was also the sure cast of his mother; especially around the mouth and John longed to pick him up and kiss him. He laid his hand gently on the boy's head and the child stirred uneasily, then settled. John gazed a while then motioned to go. They left him sleeping peacefully and didn't speak until they were downstairs again.

John wiped his eyes when they were downstairs. He was always doing it for his eyes watered uncontrollably all the time, but this time they were unmistakably tears. When he'd recovered, John thanked them. "Perhaps after the war when I come back, you'll help him to get to know me? Help me be his father?"

Joe responded at once. "Aye, for sure," he said. "Ah'll tell 'im tha'rt his father afore long. He's getten old enough to understand. Then tha must come more often an' get to know him proper. Tak 'im to rugby matches an' all that like Ah do."

Mary and Joe saw him to the gate, where John left them waving goodbye. The memory of his son stayed with him all night, and when he and Sir Abe settled down for their usual night-cap in front of a blazing fire, the old house had never felt so cosy nor Helen so close.

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