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Illingworth House: Chance Child, Part Two - 57

...John was unconscious for days. His wound became infected and for a time it looked as if he might lose his leg. When he was well enough he was flown back to England for more operations and there he met Miriam. She'd received a letter from Rebecca telling her what had happened and flew home at once...

John Waddington-Feather continues his engaging story of the Illingworth family.

It seemed ages before anyone came to help him and the pain in his leg became unbearable. He passed out and when he came round he heard the sound of voices not far away speaking English. He shouted he was injured and heard footsteps running towards him. A couple of paratroopers came round the pile of bricks he was lying on and called for a medic. Then he was picked up and carried unconscious to a field ambulance.

John was unconscious for days. His wound became infected and for a time it looked as if he might lose his leg. When he was well enough he was flown back to England for more operations and there he met Miriam. She'd received a letter from Rebecca telling her what had happened and flew home at once. She discovered that none of her mail had been forwarded from her flat in Brighton by her parents.

He was in a side ward, propped up with pillows looking pale and drawn. She, too, had changed and despite her tan she didn't look well. As she leaned across to kiss him, he drew her close and held her fiercely. Neither of them said anything, till at last she whispered, "Oh, John, John. I thought I'd lost you, my darling. I heard nothing till Rebecca wrote..."

He hushed her as she began weeping and the hot tears streamed down her face as he held her head against his breast. He caressed her gently, telling her again and again how much he loved her, drinking in the sweet scent of her perfume as he pressed his face against her rich black hair.

In time, she drew back and clasped his hands, looking deeply into his face. It was gaunt and drawn. There were lines about his eyes which weren't there before. He looked older, indeterminably older, and there was pain in his eyes. War had changed him as it had changed her.

She stayed by his bedside till it was time to go, then she returned to her flat and wrote a long letter to Frank Werfel ending their affair. It had been a stormy one from the start and she knew now beyond all doubt, after that visit to John, how much she loved him and how much he needed her. Her affair with Werfel had been no more than a fling.

The next time she visited him Ann was there. She was staying at Rebecca's flat in town and arranged to meet Miriam at John's hospital.

Throughout the visit they sat together at his bedside and as they chatted, Ann saw for the first time the love John and Miriam held for each other, feeling the bitter-sweet pain of her own love for John transferring to another. While they were there, his doctor came on a ward round, so they adjourned to the tea-room and there Ann told Miriam why she and John couldn't marry.

Though they'd chatted quite freely while John was present, alone together they went silent for a time. Not because they were embarrassed. No, there was none of that, just as there was no jealousy. More that they'd read each other's thoughts, but couldn't express what they felt. It was Miriam who broke the silence.

"Rebecca's told me about your illness," she said quietly, putting her hand on Ann's. "I'm sorry, Ann, deeply sorry."

Ann smiled wistfully and shrugged her shoulders. "Che sera, sera," was all she said, then took a deep breath. "Miriam, has John told you why we separated, why we can't marry?" she began.

"Can't?" said Miriam. "No. He's never said why you broke off your engagement. I assumed it was you, for some reason, for he loved you very much and it hurt him to tell me. You both seemed to be so very much in love on that holiday in France."

"I still love him," whispered Ann. Her voice was almost inaudible and she kept her eyes down fighting back tears. Then she looked up suddenly and said earnestly "And you love him, too, don't you Miriam?"

Miriam coloured. "Is it so obvious? Yes. I love him, Ann." She paused a moment then asked, "But why couldn't you marry? Is there something I ought to know?"

"You'll have to know some time," Ann replied. "Better now. But don't tell John. Don't tell anyone. Only he and I know why we can never marry.. .and my mother."

Miriam couldn't begin to guess what she was going to say and the colour left her face. She thought it must be something terrible. It had to be to make them end their engagement, something that might force her and John apart as it had done Ann. But she gave her word. She'd tell no one.

Ann told her everything and Miriam found it difficult to take it in. It didn't seem real, but finally she said quietly, "You poor, poor girl." It sounded feeble, she knew, but she could find no other words and held Ann's hand tightly. "So we were all related much closer than we thought when we stood together by John Illingworth's war memorial that time in Belgium."

Ann nodded. "Too close, John and I," she said bleakly. Then she added, "I still love him. Not in the old way. That's gone.. .and he's got you now." She paused and smiled sadly. "And he needs you more than ever."

The nurse came and said they could go back to the ward, but Ann didn't stay long. She was exhausted and when Rebecca came to collect her, she left Miriam chatting with John. The next time she and John met, she was dying.

John's wound healed slowly, but left him with a limp the rest of his life. When the local press got hold of the story he became something of a hero in Keighworth, but he played it down. The memory of the man's face he'd killed was too fresh. So was the futility of it all. And all those old men he'd met as a boy down Garlic Lane or at Illingworth House, veterans of both World Wars, their sudden silences made sense now. They, too, were haunted by ghosts.

**

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