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Illingworth House: Chance Child, Part 2 - 33

John Illingworth returns home on Christmas leave from the Army to find that both Ann and her mother are ill.

John Waddington-Feather continues his engrossing saga involving the Illingworths, a Yorkshire mill-owning family.

To read earlier episodes please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/illingworth_house/

His grandfather kept him up to date with as much news as he could about Rosemary and Ann, but said little beyond he'd heard they weren't well for he hadn't seen Rosemary for some time. Just how ill they both were John didn't discover till he went home on leave for Christmas late in December.
And what a miserably long journey it was. There were the inevitable repairs to the mainline track and his train was diverted through Cambridgeshire. The sun looked more washed out and wintry than ever around Ely, where a light fall of snow threw into relief the hedgerows and trees. The fields set themselves in long hard furrows sealed by a week's frost, and at intervals along the snaking hedges, trees brittle as charcoal reached to a sky so thin it looked as if it were going to crack any minute.

As the train chugged slowly across the frozen fens, ice in the dykes glinted dully. Everything was frozen solid. Even the cathedral at Ely stood stock still for ages as the train limped by. Time crawled into night as the flatlands became darker and darker till at length all John saw was his own reflection in the carriage window.

Heating barely got past the first coach and conversation among his fellow passengers had long frozen. He took his army greatcoat down from the rack and retreated into it to read a paper he'd grabbed at Kings Cross. He flicked through it in a desultory way till his eye caught the headline: "New Insurance Company floated by Keighworth M.P." then he began to read in earnest.

"Rush for shares," the paper went on and raved about how Keighworth's M.P. had fought hard to locate the new company in the town and bring in much needed trade. Right at the end of the article were the names of the directors, among them Simon Grimstone and Harry Clemence. Keighworth thought a new Golden Age had arrived as more and more applications for shares rolled in, the paper said.

The train arrived so late he didn't contact Ann till the following morning. She took the call and her joy rang through her voice. "Johnnie, darling! What a wonderful surprise!" she exclaimed and asked if she could see him at once. She'd come immediately and collect him, then return with him to Rosemary Nook as she couldn't leave her mother long.

She arrived at Prospect Street in the little two-seater she'd been given for her birthday. Joe was out and it caught Mary Gibson on the hop in the middle of her Christmas baking. When she arrived John was in the front room, reserved for visitors and the Sabbath. He heard his aunt greet Ann in her strident mill voice, laughing nervously as she received her guest. She didn't get an Illingworth calling every day. "Come in. Come in, love," she called. "You're just in time for a mince pie. They'll be ready directly." John went through to spare his aunt further embarrassment, but he pulled up short when he saw Ann and how ill she looked, shaking her hand formally before they went into the front room.

Aunt Mary followed them and stood hesitantly inside the door a moment before excusing herself to attend to her cooking. Left by themselves they didn't know what to do for a moment. Ann looked drawn, drained of colour and she'd lost weight. By contrast he was in the peak of condition after his army training, looking more attractive than ever. She gave a wistful smile and began to speak, then her voice broke and she flung herself impetuously into his arms. "Johnnie! Oh, Johnnie, my darling, it's been so long.. .I've wanted you so much..."

He held her close kissing her brow as she wept on his shoulder. "You never told me you were ill." he began lamely. "What's the matter?"

"They don't know," she sobbed, still clinging to him. "Please, darling, don't speak. Just hold me." They said nothing for some moments letting mutual comfort flow through their embrace. But when they heard Aunt Mary scrabbling around in the next room and about to come in, she dried her eyes and tried to smile. "We'll speak later," she whispered and kissed his cheek lightly.

Aunt Mary came in with a tray of mince-pies all smiles and bounce. "These'll warm you up," she said brightly, passing round her pies with her best plates. "It's never Christmas wi'out mince-pies, an' you need summat warm inside you this weather."

They were piping hot, almost too hot to eat, but Aunt Mary couldn't have brought them at a better time. They occupied all their attention to stop them burning their mouths, yet letting them sit close to each other making trite conversation as they ate.

Aunt Mary chattered non-stop, looking keenly at the couple before her, intercepting their glances and taking all in. She said nothing then but spoke out later when she realised how much they were in love and the time for straight talking had come, but by that time it was too late.
Somehow they got through their mince-pies without burning their mouths and kept Aunt Mary happy listening to her small-talk. Then they left in Ann's car for Rosemary Nook trhrough a morning polished by the sharp winter sun. Frost glistened on the roads and housetops, turning Albert Park, into a white wonderland of iced trees and grass.

As they drove he put his arm protectively round her shoulders. The stress of being apart had taken its toll for their roundness had gone and he could feel her bones beneath the brittle skin. He asked why she'd said nothing about her illness in her letter.

"I didn't want to upset you," she said, "and I thought I'd be better by the time you came home. They think it's acute anaemia and I'm being
treated for that." Certainly she was very pale. Her eyes had sunk emphasising their blueness more than ever. But there was strange light in them, which made them glitter at times.

He asked after her mother and she surprised him by saying her mother was very ill. "They've allowed her out of the home she's in for a couple of days, but she's going back for Christmas. Rodney and his crowd are coming over to Rosemary Nook and she just can't face them - neither can I. I'm spending Christmas with Uncle Abe."

They drove on a while then he asked if she'd told anyone about them. His grandfather, perhaps? She said no. Only the three of them knew about that rotten secret. Glancing across at him she asked if he'd told anyone. He'd have lied to anyone but her and said he'd told Owen Kent. "He helped me a great deal," he said. "Helped me over the worst. I couldn't bear it much longer."

She said she'd had no one to unburden herself to and began weeping, searching for her handkerchief. John passed her his and she wiped away her tears and tried to smile. "I still love you, Johnnie. Desperately. I haven't changed. I can't change."

He tightened his grip on her shoulder. "Neither have I," he said. "Nor shall I."

They had to wait at the junction with the main road and she mentioned her brother was home on leave and that hadn't helped matters. "He said some rotten things about you till I shut him up," she said. "So did mummy."

"Your mother?" he said, surprised.

"She won't hear anything said against you now."

"You said she was very ill."

"She's had a stroke. You might as well prepare yourself. You'll see a great change in her. It's left her partially paralysed and affected her speech badly," she replied. Then she explained all that had happened since he'd last seen her. How her mother had collapsed and had been rushed into hospital. She'd kept it from Sir Abe and he still wasn't fully aware how ill Rosemary was. She'd break it to him over Christmas now her mother was on the mend. John being home would also cushion it and she'd be there over Christmas, so he wouldn't be by himself when he found out.

Though she'd done her best to alert him about Rosemary, John wasn't prepared for what he found. She was by herself when they reached Rosemary Nook, though Ann had left her with her brother and specifically asked him to wait till she returned. It annoyed her to find her mother alone and it shocked John when he saw her.

She'd aged frighteningly and looked shrunken and grey. She'd lost a deal of weight and the skin round her neck hung scraggy. By contrast, that around her face was tight. The heavy make-up she'd worn all her life was gone and left a grotesque caricature of her former self.

The last time he'd seen her she'd been a beautiful woman. Now her face was ravaged, sagging on one side so that she constantly dribbled saliva. Ann stood by helping her, still angry her bother had deserted her. Rosemary was helpless and Ann had to adjust her mother's shawl. All her pride and arrogance had gone. She was a changed broken woman, who looked at John closely when he entered. She held out the hand she could still use and he took it and pressed it warmly. Then she surprised him by suddenly pulling him forward to kiss him, before sinking back with a sigh. He smiled and asked her how she was. She muttered something he didn't catch and gave him a crooked smile in return.

Ann fussed over her like a child as she tried saying something else, calming her and telling her not to speak as she became agitated. "Hush, mummy, we're all together now. You, me and Johnnie. Now sit quiet while I make some coffee." It calmed her and she sat staring at John. What was going on in her tormented mind he couldn't fathom, but continued holding her hand and dabbed her mouth till Ann came back.

She attempted to speak but all that came out were garbled sounds and he wished Ann would come back. He found the stress unbearable, comforting the woman who'd degraded him all his life, now feeling pity for her. He talked about the weather and asked which nursing him she was in. She garbled something he couldn't understand but he nodded and that satisfied her. He made more trite conversation, then right out of the blue she said quite clearly, "Will you ever forgive me?"

She caught him unawares and he nearly said he didn't understand, but he knew she knew all right, so he said, "What's the point of feeling bitter. The past has passed. None of us can undo it."

She lowered her head and took her eyes from him for the first time, weeping so copiously the tears streamed down her face onto her dress. John tried to console her calling at the same time for Ann, who knelt beside her and comforted her like a child again. "Oh, come, mummy. There's nothing to cry about. If we all stick together we'll pull through. Isn't that so, Johnnie?" she said looking up at him.

He poured the coffee while she attended to her mother, holding her cup for her so that she could swallow properly, and as he sipped his own coffee John looked around and noticed all the old photos of John Illingworth had gone. Later he saw them in her room at the nursing home with the rest of her personal stuff. He guessed then she'd cleared out for good and wondered what had happened to Harry Clemence.

When Rosemary fell asleep, they had some precious time alone together in the kitchen to speak openly. She asked again if he'd met another girl.

"No," he said emphatically. "Nobody can take your place."

"You must," she whispered.

"And you?" he asked watching her closely.

She shook her head.

"Robin Clough. Does he still mean anything?"

"He never did," she said. "But he's coming to the party here on Christmas Eve. He won't take no for an answer and he's been pestering me all the time you've been away."

"Don't rush into anything, Ann," he said.

He still felt jealous and was glad she was going to Sir Abe's over Christmas. "I don't feel up to parties, especially that sort," she said, "with Rodney and all his lot there. Did you know he and Vicky Ackroyd are getting married in the new year?"

Their privacy was shattered by her brother coming back. They heard his car draw up outside with a squeal of brakes. He'd been drinking and brought back a friend. As the car door opened they heard his loud laugh. Someone shouted as they got out and Rodney laughed again. John recognised the passenger's voice as they burst laughing into the lounge. It was Robin Clough.

They stopped dead as they came in and saw John, then Rodney asked angrily, "What the bloody hell is he doing here?"

Ann flared up. Her face coloured as she hissed, "Shut up! You'll waken mummy and she asked him here."

"Mummy?" he said. "I don't believe it!"

By this time Rosemary had woken up. She'd heard what he said and as he looked across at her she nodded. Clough said not a word from start to finish, only standing stupid and bullish by the door.

"If he stays, I don't!" was all Rodney could offer petulantly. "And he bloody well doesn't come here again while I'm in the house. That's flat!" Then he strode out followed by Clough into the living room. There was little point in staying after that, so John made to leave. Ann told him to stay and followed her brother into the next room, where they heard her through the open door putting Rodney in his place. She was sarcastic when he tried to reply and told him to see to their mother while she ran John back home. Robin Clough she ignored completely.

On the way to Prospect Street they made arrangements for Christmas. John had the use of his father's old car while he was on leave and was to pick her up on Christmas Eve to attend Midnight Mass with him and his aunt and uncle. Then he'd run her to Illingworth House and see her on Christmas Day, joining them after his dinner with Joe and Mary some time in the afternoon. Then they'd go to Ilkesworth together to visit her mother for by then Sir Abe would know just how ill she was.


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