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Illingworth House: Chance Child, Part Two - 51

John Illingworth pays a sad visit to Ann, who has less than a year to live.

John Waddington-Feather continues his enthralling story of the Illingworths, a well-to-do Yorkshire family.

It was a chilly and raw morning as he set off by train for London. The fog made the train late, but once in the suburbs it began to thin and the sun had broken through by the time he met Ann.

When he reached the hospital, a nurse took him to Ann's room where she was ready to go out. By then he was all tensed up wondering how she'd look, how both of them would react when they met face to face. He was shaking but she was made of sterner stuff. She'd a great deal of her mother in her. So, as it turned out, it wasn't Ann who needed comfort but him. When the nurse left he fell into her arms and began sobbing, "Ann, Ann, my darling," over and over again, while she held him like a mother and stroked his hair.

She'd lost even more weight since their last meeting, and felt like nothing in his arms, yet she insisted they go out and make the most of the sun. When they left the hospital, they strolled slowly down Giltspur Street towards St Paul's making their way to the Embankment where they'd arranged to dine.

As they set out, the last of the fog lifted and the great dome of the cathedral loomed over them, shining in the sunlight. She wanted to go inside. She'd never looked round the cathedral before, but John thought it might be too much for her. She said she could always rest if she felt tired. She was breathless by the time they'd climbed the high bank of steps to the entrance, so they rested a while, watching the whirlpool of traffic roaring below.

She'd a childlike delight being in London. She'd been there scores of time but each visit, she said, was like the first time. "You feel to be at the heart of the City here," she remarked happily as the air pulsed with noise: the traffic, the sound of many footsteps, and the racket on a building site nearby. When she'd looked her fill they went inside and sat near Wellington's monument.

There, she told him more about her illness and how long she'd got to live. "A year at the most," she began, as if she was speaking of someone
else. "They pussy-footed about trying to hide the facts from me at first, but I asked them outright."

It seemed unreal to John, sitting there in one of London's great churches talking so casually about her death. He found himself gripping her hand tightly, not wanting to let go, drinking in her face, beautiful still though cast with unearthly pallor. Her eyes had lost none of their brilliant blue; indeed, their light had intensified as the rest of her body weakened. "I'm reconciled to what's going to happen," she said finally, "as long as I have you. As long as I have your love, Johnnie."

She looked across at him and he paused. "You know you have that, Ann. Always," he said in a whisper.

She realised she was hurting him speaking again like this, so she opened her guidebook and said they should start their tour of the cathedral. She read quickly, as if to stop the conversation drifting back to her, and pointed out the glories in stone about them. There was a permanence about Wren's vision that contrasted with the human condition. His cathedral hadn't the awesome vastness of a Gothic building, like the Minster at York or the Abbey at Westminster. It had an intimacy, the feel of a parish church, the balance of the classical.

They climbed to the Stone Gallery to look at the view over the City. The sounds below were now only a hum, scarcely heard in the wind blowing off the nearby river. They were in another world up there, so high above the turmoil of London. Smoke from a power station billowed across the skyline, joining the smog from countless chimneys, which gripped London by the throat each winter. But the wind kept the smoke on the move and they could see miles in the sharp sunlight and stood pin-pointing landmarks from their guidebook, absorbed for some minutes before they descended to the crypt.

Another reality confronted them there in the blown-up photographs of the Blitz twenty years before, the same Blitz their father had fought in as a fighter pilot. Prominent was the photo of St Paul's rising above an inferno which it miraculously survived. Relics of war hung from the walls or blocked their way with gigantic sarcophagi of black marble.

Hoary memorials weighty with age and dead praise of dead generals and admirals were everywhere. By contrast, Dean Donne's effigy had a chilling honesty about it, wrapped as he was in his marble shroud. Like Wren's his life's work still lived.

The sun grew in warmth as they left for their meal. Their restaurant overlooked the river and they were able to watch the traffic plying up and down as it had done for centuries. Across the river, Southwark and its own cathedral hung like a backcloth, and downstream towered London Bridge. They found a peace that day which wrapped them and stayed with them to the end.


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