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Flood: TWENTYFOUR

Robert Dyce arranges a grand picnic.

Emma Cookson continues her engrossding story set in the Nineteenth Century of love and revenge.

Robert had arranged for wagonettes to bring families from Thonglea and other villages to the Feast. Among them were Ashley Jenkins, his manager, James Newton (and Also James), Little Bob Ellis and his Worthy friend John, and their wives and children. He had also had hampers of food stowed in the wagons and now a grand picnic was being laid out by the ladies, led by Bessie Pallister.

Children laughed and screamed and the mill owner's daughters, Sarah Jane and Emily, soon found friends among the daughters of the mill workers. Among the youngsters sat A;soJames with a little boy upon his knee. The little boy jumped up and ran off, dropping something behind him that Also James picked up ruefully.

Also James joined his father, John Worth and Little Bob Ellis who were standing to one side in a no-man's land of indecision as to when they could, with good grace, slip off to one of the several ale houses in the village. The other men had already gone.

"A problem?" Robert asked Also James.

The young man held up a carved pig and said, "Little bugger's not happy with animals anymore."

He swayed away from the swing of his father's arm.

"Manners," reminded James Newton.

"Beg pardon, Mr Dyce. But Abel wants a railway engine."

"So? You're a craftsman with a knife. Carve him an engine."
"Easy to say, Mr Dyce, but while I can walk out of our 'ouse and see pigs and 'orses, I'm not that sure what a railway engine looks like."

"Ah. Then you have a problem. It must be hard to be an uncle."

"It is, Mr Dyce. It is."

James Newton said, "We unloaded all the baskets, Mr Dyce. Would you be needing us for anything else? This weather does give a man a thirst."

Robert grinned and said, "All the baskets?"

"Aye."

"Then you perhaps heard the clink of bottles coming from this one?"

"Bottles, sir? Good 'eavens."

James Newton kept his face straight but Worthy John and Little Bob Ellis were grinning wide enough to laugh.

ďI think you may find it to contain ales and porter, Mr Newton. Just the thing for a hot day."

"Indeed, sir. The very thing."

"Perhaps you would care to distribute the refreshment?"

"Happy to be of service, sir," he said, lifting the top of a wicker basket, that had already been unfastened, and handing out bottles.

Robert glanced across at Beth, as she helped feed sandwiches and cake to children, and wished they hadnít argued. He also wished she hadnít said what she had. He moved among the group, drifting from conversation to conversation.

Richard Sykes, arm in arm with his wife, and with a small tribe of children in attendance, stopped to talk to the men and, for once, he seemed to have left his usual seriousness at home. Robert walked back to greet them and invited them to join the picnic. After a brief hesitancy, Sykes gave his permission and his children ran to join the rest.

His wife, Emily, whose dark hair was already heavily tinged with grey, thanked Robert politely, in such a manner that suggested she thought her husband might forget to do so. Robert pressed a bottle of beer into Sykes' hand and drew him to one side when the moment presented itself.

"I hear Bishop's Mill is to go into the hands of the receivers?" he said.

Bishop's Mill was not far from The Narrows where Sykes lived.

"I've heard the same," said Sykes, suspicious behind his heavy moustache.

"Without wishing the fact to be widely known, I might be interested in its purchase."

"Aye?"

"If I were to buy it, Mr Sykes, I would be in need of a mill engineer. The man I have in mind might easily, in a short space of time, become mill manager. I wondered if you would be interested in the position?"

Sykes gave him a long look.

"Why me, Mr Dyce?"

"I've made enquiries about your work and heard nothing but praise. It's your attitude that has got you into trouble in the past."

"My attitude won't change."

"Good. I think it is much like mine. Would you work with me, Mr Sykes?"

"With you, Mr Dyce? Not, for you?"

"With me. I think we would be good together."

Sykes half-smiled but it was a wary smile.

"I hope youíre not playing with me and with the others," he said. "For us, it isnít a game. Itís hardly life. Most often, it's survival. Don't play with us, Mr Dyce."

"I'm not playing. Would you work with me?"

"Aye. I'd work with you."

When the bottled beer had been consumed, James Newton and the other working men casually sauntered in the direction of The Jacobís Well Inn. Mothers sat on the grass and chatted and elder children took charge of younger children as they played or went exploring the excitements of the afternoon.

Jonathon Goodwell happily gave his consent for Gertie and Zac to take his daughters to the circus and Robert smiled as four-year-old Emily sat astride Zac's shoulders while nine-year-old Sarah Jane walked hand-in-hand between the couple.

Late in the day, Robert, Arnold Pallister and Cosmo Pinkerton smoked cigars at a distance from the ladies. Robert told Arnold of the discussions he had had with Harry Simms about the safety of the reservoir embankment.

"It will cost no more than a few pounds and even the commissioners will see the sense in the expenditure," he said.

"Aye, well. So many folk have cried wolf about the dam, that there are plenty who have gone deaf." Arnold puffed on the cigar. "Nothing will happen, they say, and, like as not, nothing will."

"You're probably right," said Robert. "Nothing will happen." His glance strayed towards Beth. He felt guilty about their argument. "Lumb Top is safe enough, but £12 will make it safer."

Dusk was beginning to settle and the crowds began to thin as families from outlying villages started the long walk home. Their party had left the field to find the wagonettes that would take them up the valley, tired but with happy memories to last until Christmas.

Robert, Cosmo and Beth returned to Bradfield in their rented gig with rugs wrapped around them against the sudden chill. Cosmo lightened the atmosphere with light banter and Robert made an effort to join in and lessen the divide that had opened between him and Beth.

As they went through Layton and past the Bath Hotel, she said, "Goodbye Beth, hello Jenny," and began to sing the opening verse of Willing For A Shilling. Cosmo and Robert joined in on the chorus.

They stopped outside the house where she lived and Robert jumped to the ground and handed her down and walked with her to the door.

"I'm sorry we argued," he said, holding her right hand in both of his.

The evening was advanced and cold. Jenny shivered.

ďSo am I," she said. "But there is a time to let go, Robert Dyce. I know that now." She glanced at the moon and the cloudless sky. "Funny thing, time. This afternoon was almost like summer and now winter is just around the corner."

Her eyes held his and made him uncomfortable.

"It's cold," he said. "You should go inside."

"I'm going." She smiled sadly. "But remember what Zac said and think on. Time does not stand still, and neither should you."

She kissed him on the cheek and went into the house and left him feeling momentarily desolate without knowing the reason.

"Are you okay?" Cosmo called.

"I'm fine." He shuddered and said, "Soon be winter." He snorted and found his self-pity waiting. "I wonder if it can be any more disastrous than summer."


**

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