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Illingworth House: Chance Child, Part 2 - 31

John Illingworth confesses his feelings of guilt at his association with Ann to a sympathetic Army padre.

John Waddington-Feather continues his grippiung tale of the fortunes and misfortunes of the Illingworths, a Yorkshire mill-owning family.

Army life suddenly became enjoyable as his grandfather had said. He passed his courses with flying colours and played a great deal of sport, turning out for a local rugby club as well as his Corps side, and enjoying the social life that went with it. He also went up to London for the day to see the odd show, and joined the choir at Mareton Church, befriended by the vicar who was also padre to the camp. Of all people, the Revd. Owen Kent helped him most to come to terms with himself and Ann.

The church at Mareton was just behind the camp. It sat in its graveyard buffered from the constant stream of traffic going to the coast from London, and opposite was the Chequers pub. The church was centuries old. Moss lay thick on the roof and on the path leading to the west door. When you entered you were at peace at once. The same peaceful aura was in the vicarage just behind the church, where John went with Owen Kent when he desperately needed help.

After that meeting with Rosemary Clemence, he felt more and more guilt. He was still deeply in love with his half-sister but felt helpless. She never left his mind and matters came to a head with the first letter he received from her shortly after arriving at Mareton.

"My darling Johnnie," it began, "I'm sorry I haven't written earlier, but I needed time to sort myself out. It hasn't helped that mummy's talked non-stop about our father, as if unburdening herself of the past. On top of all this she's had a breakdown and needed treatment, and I've had to cope with all that.

Please, Johnnie, swear you still love me. I can't stop loving you... ever, even though I shouldn't. I miss you so much, I ache for you, my darling. Write soon, Johnnie, for I love you with all my heart and soul. Let me know how you are for Rodney's sent some rotten letters about you. God bless you my sweetheart. Ann"

Reading her letter over and over, John realised they both shared the same feelings of guilt. Guilt of a different kind afflicted her mother and broke her in the end. Everything now slotted into place: why they looked so alike, why they were attracted from an early age, why she was so different from that shit of a brother and father. And as he read her letter for the umpteenth time he felt drawn to pour out his feelings to Owen Kent. The opportunity came at a chance meeting in the pub.

John was the only customer in the bar when the vicar dropped in on his way home. John was re-reading Ann's letter and the priest noticed the look on John's face. When their eyes met, John slipped the letter guiltily into his pocket.

"Not bad news, I hope?" said the priest bringing his drink over.

John hesitated but the other's gentle eyes and reassuring air broke the ice. He told him he was worried.

"Anything I can do to help?" offered the priest.

John took a deep breath and said, "As a matter of fact there is. I want some advice, about a girl, a girl I'm in love with."

"Nothing urgent, I hope," said Owen.

"No. Nothing like that. More complicated," John said. By now the bar was beginning to fill and Owen suggested they adjourn to the vicarage where there was more privacy. So they finished their drinks and crossed the road to the churchyard. It was surrounded by horse chestnut trees and the path was a carpet of russet leaves. Further into the graveyard yews stood sentinel over the dead, black and silent.

At the vicarage Mrs Kent greeted them, but some silent signal from her husband said they were to be left alone and she excused herself. They went to the vicar's study and Owen went to make some tea. When he'd gone, John began to wonder if he was doing the right thing. Would Owen Kent really understand?

There was a crucifix on the desk and another, a smaller one, on the wall over the door. Above the fireplace was an icon he'd picked up before
the war when he was in Greece. Across from it, one side of the room was taken up with paperbacks on open shelves. A small glass-fronted book-case housed hardback theological tomes. The room was warm and welcoming, leavened with prayer.

A pipe-rack stood on the mantelpiece by a box of spills. There were other odds and ends he'd picked up on his travels: near the icon a snapshot from his army days, the Commando unit he'd served with; and further on, snaps of his two sons and daughter, now grown up and away.

On the fourth wall hung faded photographs of college rugby and cricket teams, about the same vintage as those of John Illingworth at Illingworth House. A well worn leather-padded chair hunched before his desk, and two ancient armchairs kept company by the fireside. John sat in one and the priest in the other.

When he returned with the tea, John came straight to the point. Owen regarded him closely under his bushy eyebrows. He pulled Ann's letter from his pocket and passed it over. Owen read it but didn't grasp its significance at first. It seemed like any other love-letter and as he passed it back, John blurted out, "She's my half-sister. We've fallen in love." Then he told him the whole story.

He listened in silence, lighting his pipe and nodding occasionally or sipping his tea. When John had told him everything, he felt a great burden lifted, but Owen didn't reply at once, puffing his pipe thoughtfully and throwing another log on the fire. Then he settled in his chair and said quietly, "The sin lies with others, not you, nor your sister. What you've done, you've done unwittingly, but the problem's going to be when you meet again. Somehow you'll have to contain your feelings for each other. You can't go on acting as before."

He spoke gently as they drank their tea; only the mellow tick of the clock breaking through his words. A log burned through and collapsed, sending a shower of sparks up the chimney and Owen leaned forward to settle it in the grate. The firelight caught his face, highlighting his strong features. His grey eyes were focussed on the heart of the fire, but they were searching elsewhere, into other hearts.

"If I were you, John," he said, " I'd begin looking for another girl as soon as possible, and it would be better for you both not to meet again till that's happened, unless Ann has found someone."

They chatted about other things and it was dark when John left the vicarage and made his way back to camp by moonlight. The low mist swirled over the fields, bathed in white; the air was crisp with frost and for the first time in weeks he felt at peace with himself.

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