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Illingworth House: Chance Child, Part 2 - 38

...The stillness of Christmas hung over the town as he set off on foot for Illingworth House. Barely a car passed him on the main road and he didn't meet a soul. Everyone was indoors enjoying themselves. As he walked along, he began thinking of his very first visit to his grandfather, when he went with his heart in his mouth into a new life. He'd met Ann on that visit over ten years earlier and much had happened since...

Young John Illingworth's Christmas Day is tinged with memories and filled with sad moments.

John Waddington-Feather continues his novel concerning the affairs of a Yorkshire mill-owning family.

While Ann had her Christmas lunch with Sir Abe, John had his with his aunt and uncle. He dearly wanted to see Ann and the chance came to slip away when his aunt invited some elderly neighbours in to hear the Queen's speech. The port bottle came out and John, who'd arranged to see his grandfather, excused himself and left them chatting before a blazing fire.

The stillness of Christmas hung over the town as he set off on foot for Illingworth House. Barely a car passed him on the main road and he didn't meet a soul. Everyone was indoors enjoying themselves. As he walked along, he began thinking of his very first visit to his grandfather, when he went with his heart in his mouth into a new life. He'd met Ann on that visit over ten years earlier and much had happened since.

His world had changed and only slowly had he become aware of that and how radical it had been. He noticed it first in little things. Like the range of topics he could talk about with Joe. Any academic conversation was out of the question with his aunt and uncle, both of whom had left school at twelve; yet they had profound commonsense. Something his grandfather had lacked at times.

When he'd gone to university his speech had changed into an accepted form. He still had a Yorkshire accent, but it was acceptable - even to southern ears. When new folk who didn't know him moved in down the street, they treated him with a respect, which sat uneasily on him. A deference they gave to the upper-crustians. His aunt revelled in it and was proud of him, but he was set aside by the neighbours. No longer one of them. He'd become classless.

The town, too, had changed, the place he was born in yet had to leave. And he wasn't the only exile. A whole generation of grammar school boys all over Britain decamped from their hometowns. Many of them abroad. Each time he returned, Keighworth grew smaller and more parochial. The place irritated him when he was there, but once away he found himself growing sentimental about the old town. Not the town as it was, but the town of his boyhood, which even then was being ripped apart.

Ann, on the other hand, had never known Keighworth. She'd spent her girlhood in Switzerland at school and her holidays with school friends. She'd no friends in Keighworth nor did she relate to the town. It was the upland moors and the forces there which she identified with and which her love for John was part of.

When he reached the house, Ann greeted him. He noticed at once the stress of the previous day had gone and she looked happy, as happy as the first time they'd met. In a sense the house had always been their home. They'd grown up there together. Her coming-out party there had set the seal on their love and Sir Abe was a patriarchal figure to them both; more than ever now. Putting a finger to her lips she led him into the conservatory, for the old man was asleep. So was Johnson in the kitchen where he'd helped himself to a bottle of claret.

The garden was as exotic as ever. A clump of purple iris was in full bloom just inside the door and further on camellias blossomed. The gardener had pruned the vine trailing across the roof, so there was a clear view of the sky. Outside, Christmas roses were full budded and ready to break, their white petals shining against the black earth. But they and the yellow jasmine splashing the wall above them were the only signs of life.

They reached a seat and she began relating a dream she'd had the night before. She'd always been a great one for telling him her dreams. Johnson had put her in John's room the night before, till he made up the old nursery for her to stay in permanently, and it triggered her dream.

"I don't know whether it was because I'd been looking at the photos of John Illingworth, but the dream was vivid.. .a nightmare," she began. She paused as if she didn't know whether she should continue but went on, "I was alone on this seat, when suddenly there was a loud roar of an aeroplane flying very low overhead, as they did in the war. It was so low, I thought it was going to hit the house."

She shivered and gripped his hand tightly. "It was John Illingworth's plane...the one in the photograph on your wall. It was ablaze and hurtling to the ground. As it passed over, I could see him distinctly slumped in the cockpit and engulfed in flames. It was horrible! Then the plane crashed out of sight and I sat rigid till my mother burst in calling my name. When I replied, she rushed over weeping and held me tight, just as she did the day she heard he'd been killed in the war, saying over and over again, 'He's been killed! John's been shot down!'

She clung harder and John tried to calm her. Red patches had begun to appear on her cheeks and she was feverish. "Mummy and I sat holding each other here, when suddenly some force began to separate us, tearing us apart and pulling me away to the doors, leaving her here. I wasn't afraid because I was going back to where the laughter and merry-making were, but mummy was left alone crying out, 'Ann! Ann! Don't leave me. You're all I've got!' Then I woke up and found myself staring at the photo near my bed. I thought it was John Illingworth at first, then I realised it couldn't be. He was in army uniform. It was you, Johnnie. You're his double."

The photo was a recent one he'd sent to his grandfather when he'd won his parachute wings. Sir Abe had put it downstairs next to his son's photo, but Johnson had brought it up to John's room. They got to up finish their stroll and talked about other things, staying in the conservatory till his grandfather woke and sent the butler to tell them he was ready to go.

It didn't look too promising outside. The day had clouded over and flurries of snow scudded over the hills, dusting them white. The cold wind met them as they left the house, but Johnson had let the car tick over and it was warm. John sat in front with the butler, and Ann in the back with Sir Abe, well wrapped up in his heavy overcoat and travelling rug.

They swung into Black Lane then went over the tops to Silegsdene, the village where Aunt Mary's parents had lived. John used to visit the place regularly as a child, but like everywhere else it was changing. New houses radiated from the centre of the old village trespassing on acres of farmland and along the canal. As they drove through it, the old part of Silegsdene seemed to have shrunk. The rows of houses looked greyer and less cared for than when John had visited. People had stopped cleaning the bit of pavement outside their backyards and they no longer whitened their windowsills. The houses looked drab, and strewn everywhere were plastic cups and the debris of junk-food cartons. The gutters were choked with them.

The new suburbs they passed through were unfinished. Heaps of builder's rubble lay along unfinished roads that snaked across meadows John had picked mushrooms in. Boxlike houses all alike cluttered the fields now.
Once they'd cleared Silegsdene, they climbed the hills dividing Airedale and Wharfedale. Then they descended into another former mill village, Adderton, whose mills had long gone. They were now craft centres and the workers' cottages were all bow windows and brass lanterns. The upper-crustians had moved in there, too.

Ilkesworth was five miles down the valley and Rosemary's nursing home was on a hillside near the moors. The nursing home was in a crescent of large houses built by retired mill-masters in the 19th century. They'd made their piles in towns like Keighworth or Bradford, then pulled back to die where there wasn't a mill chimney in sight. The area had an alpine flavour for the houses were colour washed and red tiled, unlike the dour mill villages they'd passed through. Conifers had been planted everywhere and a row of them ran along the crescent. The trees had reached their full height, blocking out the light.

They made the approach to the home a dreary business, even though some enterprising soul had strung fairy lights among the trees for Christmas. But the owners had made a good job at converting the house. The grounds were spacious and well kept. In summer they'd have been pleasant enough for the residents to sit outside or wander round the garden, which overlooked Ilkesworth. There was a goldfish pond and fountain in the middle of the lawn and a variety of bird-tables to look at.

However, once they went inside there was no hiding the whiffs of disinfectant. Old age and sickness permeated the whole place. Inside the porch stood a couple of wheelchairs and zimmer frames. From there they passed through the common room, where a circle of elderly ladies looked vacantly into space or tried to chat with visitors. Someone kept crying petulantly like a child till they wheeled her to her room. Sir Abe set his face the moment they entered and looked neither to right or left.

Despite the space and high ceilings it felt claustrophobic, and Rosemary asked them for a run-out in the car before it got dark. Her rooms were on the ground floor facing the town and she didn't get out much, but she looked better than when John had last seen her and her speech had improved. Nevertheless, it upset Sir Abe to see his niece so ill and he held her hand for a long time when they met.

"I'm sorry, Rosie," he whispered, putting a brave face on it. "You've had a right packet, one way or another. Why didn't you tell me?" He was referring to her illness, but she thought he was speaking about her husband, and she came to the point straight away, as if she wanted to get it over and done with.

"So you know about Harry and myself, Uncle Abe," she said, mouthing her words slowly. "It had to happen some time." The old man nodded. "I'll give him his divorce. The quicker he's out of my hair, the better. I should have done it years ago."

"Aye," was all he said, then added brokenly, "He took us all in."

Ann told her she'd moved into Illingworth House, but she didn't mention what had happened the night before nor did she say anything about Clemence's fancy woman. Only that Uncle Abe had asked her to stay and make the House her home.

"Thank you, Uncle Abe," said Rosemary squeezing his hand.

He patted her shoulder and nodded at his son's photo at her bedside. "As long as we stick together we'll weather through. I used to say that to Jonty time and time again."

She tried to smile and asked if he'd run her out. "Let's get some fresh air before the light goes," she said. "I'd love a run onto the moors. I haven't been there for ages. How about the Swastika Stone? It's only up the way."
The snow had powdered the heather and the air was invigorating. She and her uncle were too frail to walk and remained inside the car with Johnson, but John and Ann got out and strolled up to the boulder, sitting a while in the nearby shelter as they' done months before.

The same sheep were there, their fleeces sugared with snow, nibbling the same tough grass before night fell. The rock was covered with ice, which highlighted the carvings. Though there was no wind, she trembled and he asked if she wanted to go back. "No, Johnnie," she replied. "I want to stay a while." She smiled, fixing her eyes on the stone as if reading the weird symbols there. Then she reached over the protective railing and traced her finger round the rings. "What did you say the swastika meant?" she asked.
"It represents time turning in on itself," he answered. "Life going back to its beginnings, to God." She wondered why the Nazis had taken it up. He shrugged his shoulders. He took her hand and held it tightly in his own. It was freezing. "Come on , Ann. It's time we went back. You're frozen."

As they walked back he drew her close, putting his arms round her shoulders to keep her warm. She felt so frail; quite different from the beautiful, round-limbed girl he'd courted only a few months before. He held her gently all the way back then kissed her before they reached the car.

The light was beginning to fade by the time they returned to the nursing home. Once they'd settled, a nurse brought tea and Christmas cake. She was about to draw the curtains, but Rosemary asked her to leave them.

"I'll draw them later," she said. "It's a shame not to make the most of the lights in town." She was right. Once night had smudged away the houses, the streetlights came on and all the Christmas decorations. Uncle Abe asked Johnson to crack the bottle of port he'd brought and with the Christmas cake and all, they had quite a happy time. The local church choir set the seal on their merry-making, when it arrived to sing carols in the lounge round a Christmas tree, and they all went to join them.

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