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Illingworth House: Chance Child, Part Two - 59

John Illingworth and Ann go on a sad last walk.

John Waddington-Feather continues his deeply moving story of the lives and loves of a Yorkshire family.

Just before they reached the broken drive, they turned and looked back to the hillside across the valley, as they'd done the day her mother broke the news about their father. The sun rippled across the crest as clouds drifted by and a bird of prey combed the skyline, where age-old rocks stood out clear and sharp in the spring light. The hum from the busy town drifted up with the noise of traffic on the main road below.

"Look," said Ann suddenly, "the first swallow of the year." Sure enough, winging its way across what was left of the garden came a solitary bird. It swooped once or twice across the neighbouring trees, then disappeared.

"They used to nest in the old shed at the bottom of the tennis court," she said, "but it's gone. I wonder where the poor things will nest now."

He could see she was becoming quite upset about the whole business and he linked in to draw her away. Once they'd left the site, they didn't look back and when they reached the car, he put his foot down to get away as fast as possible.

All the way along the avenue trees were tinged a delicate green, then the road climbed steeply to the moors and they left Ruddledene behind. When the metalled road petered out, they parked the car and slowly walked the rest of the way on foot. Neither of them could walk well. He still limped badly and she was frail, but made light of their condition.

"We're two crocks, aren't we?" she said, holding on tight to him. He looked at her wasted figure and bit his lip. She must have read his thoughts for she said, "Oh, come on, Johnnie. Don't look so grim. The year's at its best. Let's make the most of it."

She was right. Once the wind had swept away the smoke over the town the sky was sharp and unusually blue. The heather was greening new growth, freshening the moors and great boulders from horizon to horizon. They were quite alone and their togetherness was heightened by the wildness about them. Grouse scattered into flight chattering. A skylark hung pouring its song high above. And a solitary curlew called as it wheeled overhead.

It took them some time to reach the Stone and by the time they arrived they were exhausted. They were glad to sit down and cushion themselves against the bank of heather surrounding it. They chatted a while, then, as the sun climbed higher, they lay back and dozed. When John looked at Ann she was sound asleep and lay so still that only the rise and fall of her breast assured him she was alive.

The light made her almost transparent, she was so pale. He gazed at her some time, drinking in her wasted features, grieving for their old love. Suddenly she opened her eyes and caught him unawares. She smiled and propped herself up on her arm, serious and intent. "When I'm gone, Johnnie, scatter my ashes up here. Promise me, Johnnie. I can't bear to think of being put in that dreadful hole where they buried Uncle Abe. I want to be here, free and wild. Promise, Johnnie."

Her words were like daggers in his heart but he promised her he would, and they said nothing for some moments. Then she continued, "There's another promise. You'll marry Miriam, won't you? Give her all the love you've given me, my darling." He turned away choked by her words. "In another life, Johnnie, there'll be no marriage - only love between us all. Isn't that so?"

He turned impetuously, catching her and holding her hard, so hard she gasped. "I wanted you in this life, Ann," he sobbed. "I wanted you so much, I still can't bear that we're apart, will be for ever soon!" He realised he was hurting her and relaxed, burying his face in her shoulder.

She comforted him like a child till he'd calmed, stroking his hair till he dozed off in the warm sunshine. He dreamt he saw Ann and himself standing up to return to the car. She'd walked on some distance away, before she turned and said, "I must leave you now, Johnnie. Look after
her...'" and her voice trailed away as she walked on, not towards the car but to the Stone.

"Ann! Ann! Come back!" he cried unable to stir, but she continued walking away from him, pointing to another figure who'd appeared over the crest and was drawing near. They met and embraced before Ann turned and went her way into the haze. The other person was walking against the sun, so that all John could see for some time was a silhouette, but as she got nearer, she called his name and he recognised her at once. It was Miriam. Drawing nearer still, she held out her arms and lifted him up, then began leading him back to the car saying, "It's late. It's time we were going home."

They were the same words Ann was speaking when he woke and they merged so closely with his dream, he scarcely knew he was awake. "It's late. It's time we were going home, Johnnie. You've been fast asleep," said Ann. She was laughing as she pulled him to his feet to go back to the car. He said nothing about his dream as he limped with her to the stone cross over the ridge. The air was fresher there and the wind caught her hair, still thick and flaxen, and for a moment she was her old self as they walked back slowly hand in hand.

It was as they reached the car it all happened. She gripped her stomach and said she felt ill, slumping into the car seat. "Take me home quick, Johnnie!" she gasped. "I need the doctor." She retched, putting her handkerchief hard against her mouth and holding it there all the way back. He saw it stained red and by the time they reached the House she was barely conscious.

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