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Illingworth House: Chance Child, Part Two - 40

...A brace of swans followed them near the bank, cavorting and circling, billing and rubbing their necks, ducking under the willows. Their branches and twigs splintered the sunlight, stippling the water all along the river. Everything was expectant, new, ready to begin life afresh.

The willows and river reminded them of Kenneth Grahame and his descriptions in "The Wind in the Willows", and they talked about their favourite parts. They were children again, delighting in old memories when they'd first read the book. A water rat shimmied across the river
in front of them. "There he goes!" said John pointing to it excitedly. "Old Ratty!"...

Young John Illingworth becomes good friends with Miriam Leff.

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

Once clear of the station, John settled down to his paper and stayed in his compartment till Kings Cross. There he hung back to let the Clemences get clear, but at the barrier he had another surprise. Waving like mad to attract his attention stood Rebecca Goldstein with Miriam Leff.

They called his name and he looked across to see them laughing and waving. Miriam wore a white duffle coat so John picked her out at once. He was glad to see them. Bumping into the Clemence wedding send-off wasn't the best start to his journey and he wasn't feeling particularly happy to begin with. Going back off leave is a dismal affair. On top of that he thought he'd have to kill some time before his connection to Oxford where he was starting a new course, so he was doubly pleased to see the girls.

"What a surprise!" he said, kissing them both. "But how did you know I was on this train?"

"David phoned," said Rebecca, " and said you'd some time to kill in London. So here we are. We finished early and you're coming to our flat to have a meal before you go to Oxford." And before he knew where he was, John was being armed by the two girls towards the subway for Hampstead. When they'd boarded their train the conversation switched to Ann, for Rebecca was very worried. After his visit to the Goldsteins, Rebecca had phoned Ann, who'd told her they hadn't been able to get to the bottom of her anaemia. She was coming to London to see a specialist and have further tests. Rebecca and Miriam were going to visit her when she'd arrived.

They chattered happily and the journey passed quickly, till they emerged at Hampstead station still laughing and chatting. The village caught their mood, vibrant as ever and good-humoured for the spirit of Christmas lingered on. Outside the station was a flower stall, with bunches of flowers spilling across the drab winter pavement. Their breath came in clouds and the cold pinched their cheeks red. As they approached the flower-stall John thought how beautiful the girls looked, how full of life, and when they reached the stall he bought them two bunches of red carnations, presenting them with mock gallantry. Rebecca gave him a kiss. Miriam hesitated then kissed him on the cheek, too, stammering her thanks.

The girls' flat was in terrace of high-shouldered Edwardian houses. They'd been built for rich London merchants, but by the mid-fifties they were run down and had been split into bed-sits, which added their own brand of raffishness to Bohemian Hampstead.

When they got in, Rebecca went to the kitchen to prepare their meal, leaving Miriam with John. The room was strewn with medical books, which Miriam began tidying away. The light fell full on her face which had lost none of its colour the frost had brought out. She had high cheek bones like Ann, but a more aquiline nose. Her eyes were brown and deeply set, and there was in them a deep compassion, a calm and serenity born of suffering, the badge of all Europe's Jews who'd suffered under the Nazis.

As they chatted over their meal, John discovered how much they had in common. She was an athlete in the university team, and they had the same tastes in music and literature. They liked the outdoor life, as did Rebecca, and before he left John gave her his address in Oxford, for Miriam was attending a course there at the Radcliffe while he was there.
They met in Oxford sooner than expected for both had free time and he dropped Miriam a note arranging to meet her for a meal. It was a sunny day, one of those February days when spring unexpectedly goes up a gear and greens everything a shade or two brighter. Before their meal they walked through the Parks and along the Cherwell, where the willows were ready to burst into leaf.

Miriam wore a red suit under her white duffle coat, which set off her dark hair and eyes. He was in mufti, wearing the new suit his grandfather had bought him and his thick overcoat. Buying his grandson his clothes served both their purposes. Nothing but the best would suit Sir Abe.

They walked some way along the riverbank chatting before they stopped to admire a line of willows on the opposite side, bright with yellow catkins. She asked about Ann, curious why they'd broken their engagement when they were still so close. Were they still in love?

Surprised by her question, he looked across but she kept her eyes fixed on the river. Her dark hair shimmered in the sunlight, which brought out the warmth in her flesh. He took in her fine brows and the line of her jaw and cheekbones, where the colour had shot to her face.

He was wrong-footed by her directness and almost confessed, but as she looked at him, he avoided her eyes and switched his gaze in turn to the river and the swans. A punt floated by and in its backwash the little flock broke ranks, sculling away in pairs. Most were young adults, ready to mate and pair for life. The cobs made hesitant advances to the pens, bobbing and weaving around them, displaying.

"We're still good friends, Miriam," he began slowly. "But our relationship has changed."

"If I may ask -why?"

"Something neither of us expected. Something beyond our control," was all he said. "I'll tell you one day, Miriam. Not now." He ended abruptly and the pain in his eyes said everything. She asked no further questions.

He had his hand on the rail and she placed hers on top of it gently. "I'm sorry," she said quietly. "You both seemed very much in love."

She let her hand stay. "What is past, is past," he said looking at her full in the face. "We're still good friends and always will be. Ann needs friends now."

There was such anguish in his face and voice Miriam continued holding his hand tightly, all the way back to town. "I'm sorry, John," she said, then fell silent as they resumed their walk. He was clearly suffering from whatever had happened between himself and Ann.

A brace of swans followed them near the bank, cavorting and circling, billing and rubbing their necks, ducking under the willows. Their branches and twigs splintered the sunlight, stippling the water all along the river. Everything was expectant, new, ready to begin life afresh.

The willows and river reminded them of Kenneth Grahame and his descriptions in "The Wind in the Willows", and they talked about their favourite parts. They were children again, delighting in old memories when they'd first read the book. A water rat shimmied across the river
in front of them. "There he goes!" said John pointing to it excitedly. "Old Ratty!"

Miriam laughed and they chatted happily till they'd reached St Catherine's and turned back into to town. They had lunch at The Mitre and afterwards browsed round the Ashmolean while it was still light. It was the first of many meetings in Oxford and by the time Miriam returned to her flat in Hampstead, they were good friends.

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