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When they arrived at the house, the doctor insisted on breaking the news to Eve himself, and to Lizzie, Isaac’s doting youngest daughter. He’d had greater experience of such things. He knew how best to convey news of sudden death. And he would do it without Tom’s help, despite Tom’s assertion that it might be better coming from him. So Doctor Clark hobbled up the entry alone. Holding on to his hat with cantankerous defiance lest the ferocious March wind took it, he braced himself for the barrage of grief he imagined would ensue.
Tom waited apprehensively in the horse road with the hushed entourage, watching for Eve. A minute or two later she scurried down the entry, already pale and in a daze. Young Lizzie, equally bewildered, clutched her mother’s billowing, long skirt. Wife and daughter stopped by the handcart and remained still, like two shrubs frozen in midwinter. They stared incredulously at the bloody corpse that had been husband to one and father to the other, while the growing crowd of onlookers shuffled in respectful silence, waiting for somebody to speak.
First to do so was Tom. ‘Eve, my flower, I’m that sorry.’ Eve instinctively cupped her right hand to her better ear and leaned towards him. ‘Beccy Crump witnessed it all. I knew nothin’ about it till they fetched me out o’ the Loving Lamb. Did the doctor tell yer as it was Jack Clancey’s hoss what bolted and smashed him into the railin’s at the Bethel?’
Eve nodded, sighing gravely. ‘He told me … But does Jack Clancey know?’
‘He knows now. He was in The Four Ways having a drink. Sammy Hudson fetched him out.’
‘And what did he say, Tom? Did he say anything?’
Tom sighed, not knowing whether he should tell Eve what Jack had said. But he’d never tried to hide anything from her before, and now would be an inappropriate time to begin. ‘He said as how sorry he was. That he’d pay you his respects later … But he said as he wouldn’t grieve over Isaac …’
‘Like as not.’ Eve looked at her husband’s broken corpse and shook her head. ‘Best bring him in the house, Tom. I’ll see if I can open the front door.’
A few seconds later, they could hear the key turning inside, and reluctant bolts being coaxed to slide on their layers of rust. It seemed to Eve that the only times this door was opened was to let a coffin out … or a corpse in.
Motionless, Lizzie looked on at her poor father, at first unable to accept that he was dead; that the man lying on the handcart was no longer the father she knew and adored, but just a heap of dead flesh and broken bones. She drifted behind the random cortege as it contrived to station his body in the house, her adolescent mind in turmoil. She wanted to cry, but she dare not yet, not while there was a chance that this was simply some terrible nightmare from which she would be released in a minute or two.
But this was no nightmare. It was happening now.
People were beginning to speak more freely; quietly giving instructions to each other on how best to manoeuvre the handcart; to shift the rag-filled stocking that kept the draught out; for somebody to put their foot on the oil-cloth to hold it down; to prise the door open wider. But the handcart could not go through the door. Tom and the doctor would have to carry poor Isaac.
‘Eve, where’s your screwdriver, my flower?’ Tom asked. ‘I’ll get the middle door off to lay him on. I’ve already sent for Annie Soap to come and lay him out.’
Eve hesitated, perplexed, unable to contemplate the whereabouts of a screwdriver. When she’d collected her thoughts she went to the brewhouse, ignoring a hen that was strutting the back yard with defiant composure. She returned clutching a screwdriver.
While Tom Dando was inside, removing the door between the whitewashed scullery and the seldom-used front room from its hinges, Lizzie gazed into the open, unseeing eyes of her father. The thought of him dying had never crossed her mind. She at least did not want him dead. She wanted him alive. She wanted him to call her on a Sunday morning to get ready for church; to bring her toffee apples on Friday evenings when he returned from work. She wanted him to ruffle her nut-brown hair whenever he walked past her, even though it always infuriated her. She wanted his fatherly squeeze from time to time. Now all that was gone; gone forever. Nobody could ever take his place. Nobody could ever be to her what he had been. Never again would she see his hearty, laughing face, or hear his hoarse chuckles. Never again would she see him enjoy a meal, then fall asleep in his chair. Eve moved to Lizzie’s side and wrapped her arms about her and held her tight, reading her daughter’s thoughts. Lizzie turned and buried her face in Eve’s ample bosom. Tears stung her eyes, and she let out an involuntary whimper, then a great angry scream of grief that seemed to gush out of her in frantic escape.
Her father was dead, and Jack Clancey’s horse had killed him. It was Jack Clancey’s fault. If he had driven the milk float into her father deliberately it would have been no greater murder. Where was Jack Clancey when it happened? Why wasn’t he looking after the animal? It was Jack Clancey who deserved to be knocked down, not her poor unsuspecting father. It was Jack Clancey who should be lying lifeless, laid out on a door.
That was four years ago. Lizzie Bishop still resented Jack Clancey. But four years is a quarter of a lifetime to a young lady of sixteen. And in a quarter of a lifetime, many of the prejudices that are diligently nurtured by refusing to forget the wrongdoing that once hurt you, can be conveniently shifted or overlooked when nature diverts your attention. Thus it was one summer Sunday in 1906.
Lizzie Bishop’s thoughts were much removed from her father. Her self esteem was high. With her white leather-bound prayer book clasped demurely in front of her she felt special, and knew she looked her best. Love, she was certain, could not be long coming. She had begun dreaming of love, and longed to taste it; to experience the potent emotions that drove others to behave in ways that ordinarily seemed totally out of character.
She stole another glance at Jesse Clancey, Jack’s only son. He was tall and fair, with a lovely drooping moustache that widened enormously when he smiled, which was often, and his steel-blue eyes radiated sincerity and compassion. He was amiable, unassuming and well liked. The low sun behind him glinted off his blond hair, and Lizzie contemplated how magnificent he looked. Her own dancing hazel eyes, if only he were perceptive enough to read their expression, hinted at a stimulating inner turbulence, a vivacious adolescent desire. Jesse was standing just a few feet from her; close enough for her to touch, close enough for her to hold. But so maddeningly out of her reach.
Lizzie could feel Jesse’s eyes on her as she swayed her shoulders to and fro self-consciously. She ought not to, but she glanced at him from under her long lashes because she could not help it. It taxed her diminishing willpower too much not to admire him and, as she returned his hopeful smile, she felt herself blush. With a casualness she did not feel she turned away and, to hide her blushes, looked down with contrived composure at her best shoes. Why did she have to colour up so vividly? Why did she have to show her partiality by blushing?
He smiled again. ‘Nice outfit, Lizzie,’ he said privately, so that nobody else could hear. ‘Suits you.’
She sensed his shyness, and understood the courage he’d had to summon to say it. ‘Thank you,’ she replied with equal diffidence, but retaining her smile.
Her outfit was in the Gibson Girl style. It used to belong to her older sister, Lucy, and was a bit out of date, but that was forgivable: there was no money these days for new, more fashionable clothes. Besides, Eve had altered it to fit, and it fitted perfectly. It fitted so well that Lizzie hoped it would turn not just Jesse’s head; Stanley Dando was equally desirable. The long, navy skirt with the belt drawn in tight, accentuated her small waist, and neatly tucked in it was the white striped shirt that emphasised her firm, young bosom, gently rising and falling with each smiling, eager breath. The girlish set of her head was enhanced by a tilted, straw boater with navy hatband that sat on top of a mound of lush, piled-up hair, an errant wisp of which contrived to caress her elegant neck.
Jesse’s mother, Ezme, overhearing her son’s compliment, scornfully gave Lizzie the once-over, scrutinising her lovely second-hand outfit for faults, mismatched seams, an uneven hem, poor finishing; anything to decry Eve’s handiwork. But she would find no such fault. Eve was Ezme’s rival and equal when it came to mending and dressmaking. The Clanceys lived near the Bishops in Cromwell Street, but neither Ezme nor Eve ever had a kind word to say about each other, even before Jack’s horse caused Isaac’s death.
Lizzie was convinced that the dressmaking was the cause of this acute rivalry. Ezme was an adept seamstress and supplemented the family’s income by it. And, although she was no better at it than Eve, she certainly believed she was. It galled Ezme that Eve did not do it for money; that she did it out of kindness. So they sustained a senseless antagonism; antagonism that had pervaded even Lizzie’s own easy-going attitude. It was all the more difficult therefore, all the more futile, to respond in the way she would dearly love to respond to Jesse, should he ever pluck up the courage to defy his mother and the prejudice invoked by that fatal accident four years ago. What a dilemma it would create! But it was a dilemma she would welcome with all her heart.
Ezme was a big, intimidating woman, almost masculine, though it was said she had not always been so. As a young woman, when she moved to Dudley from Darlaston to marry, she was said to have possessed striking looks. She was also headstrong. Certainly she was too much of a match for Jack, who hovered about her like a mere accessory.
The group, conscious of the ever-present tension between Eve and Ezme, were conversing blandly, discussing the imminent departure of the vicar, the Reverend Mr Nelson Crowshaw, and wondering whether they would approve of the new incumbent.
Beccy Crump, Eve’s next door neighbour, said, ‘I hear as old Doctor Clark’s about to retire, an’ all.’
‘Fancy,’ Eve replied with interest, her hand to her ear.
‘They say as he’s handing over his practice to his son.’
Eve sighed her approval. ‘To Donald? Oh, bless him. He’s a lovely lad, is Donald. A good doctor, an’ all, or so I heard.’
Jesse Clancey, meanwhile, could not take his eyes off Lizzie. She was as exquisite as a young princess and frisky as a foal, but he was painfully aware she was nine years his junior. Nine years that he perceived as an obstacle. Nine years that were inhibiting him from making a fool of himself. The family dairy business depended on the goodwill of its customers, so any disparagement through foolish encounters with girls, who were dangerously young, would be unprofitable. More significantly, this nine year age gap forestalled any wrath and derision from his mother, for he, too, was aware that she held Eve, and thus Lizzie, in huge contempt.
Lizzie discovered Jesse’s age by casually asking neighbours. Socialising was not encouraged, so she could never ask him directly, of course, even though they lived so close. But she could dream of him, yearn for him; and they could exchange secret smiles. Lizzie was flattered to receive the admiring glances of a man so much older. It somehow confirmed her own womanhood, her own desirability. If only he would pluck up the courage to ask her out.
Church on a Sunday evening was more of a social than a religious affair, and it wanted at least five minutes yet before they would go inside. So Lizzie, not harkening to the soft Sunday voices of her mother and the others as they stood gossiping, tilted her face towards the sun’s deepening, yellow glow, which was falling warm on her face. Momentarily, she closed her eyes, savouring the pleasure of it. Silver birches were casting long, cool shadows over the monolithic graves of wealthier families, and the doves that dwelt in the bell tower flapped fussily as they vied for best roosts. A bee, hindered in its flight home by its own diligence, hummed with optimism around a final bunch of tulips on one of the lesser graves. Lizzie imagined herself standing outside some country church immersed in rural stillness. But, tomorrow, the forge close by would violate this enviable peace. The ground would tremble to the thud, thud of massive board hammers, as if a giant’s heart were pounding beneath your feet. In adjacent streets, the cupolas of hot, sulphurous foundries would roar more terrifyingly than the furnaces of Bedlam. Pit heads with their big, rumbling wheels, and the clanking, hissing steam engines that powered them, were also within sight and earshot; and men would be calling to each other over the din of it all.
Yet all was so serene now.
Aunt Sarah Dando arrived at last, with Sylvia and Stanley. Sylvia was quite the young lady now, twenty years old with dark, wavy hair, and an inch or two taller than Lizzie; her face was thinner, but her eyes were bright. She walked and stood proudly, and when she smiled she revealed a lovely set of even teeth. Lizzie noticed how she, too, kept glancing at Jesse, smiling coquettishly when he chose to look her way.
Lizzie calculatingly detached herself from the group, which by now had granted token observance to the perennial walnut of women’s suffrage, and was discussing Bella Dowty’s ulcerated legs. One sure way to divert Jesse’s interest away from Sylvia, she reckoned, was to make him jealous. A ploy she’d learned some time ago. So she moved to talk to Stanley, her second cousin, with whom she enjoyed an easy friendship. She flirted openly with him, touching his arm with agonising familiarity when she spoke, tormenting Jesse.
Stanley was eighteen, tall and wiry, with dark curly hair. He had a clear complexion, a pretty face for a lad – even prettier than his sister – and a mouth that Lizzie increasingly considered was extraordinarily kissable. As children they used to play games that involved stealing a kiss or two. But now she was older and growing inexorably more interested in kissing, the notion of doing it properly had appealed for some time, but with increasing intensity lately. And if she could not be kissed by Jesse Clancey with his lovely moustache, who better than Stanley?
Stanley, for his part, was entertaining similar fantasies about Lizzie. Six months ago he wouldn’t have given her a second thought; after all, they were so familiar; like brother and sister almost. But, lately, she’d blossomed into such a desirable young woman, and he regarded her now in a different light. He’d not met any girl he would rather see undressed. Her beautiful eyes seemed to sparkle with vitality, and always with a taunting frolicsome look, and he was sure she was thinking thoughts as impious as his own. It was certain she would allow him to undress her if he applied himself sensitively.
‘Where’s Uncle Tom, Stanley?’ Lizzie enquired.
‘In The Freebodies. He wanted a quick pint before the service. Said he was thirsty.’
She felt Jesse’s eyes on her again, but she could afford to disregard his admiring stares now she’d found less controversial company in Stanley. She said: ‘We’ll see the new vicar tonight, Stanley. That’s why a lot have come, I daresay. There’s folk here I haven’t seen for ages. If ours don’t hurry up and finish their chin-wagging, we’ll never get a seat.’
‘How about me and you going in now, Lizzie? We could sit by ourselves. We needn’t wait for them. We needn’t sit near ’em, come to that.’
‘Oh, I don’t know,’ she answered, in two minds. ‘I shouldn’t leave my mother.’
‘Aunt Eve’ll be all right. My folks’ll keep her company. Hang on, I’ll tell ’em we’m going in without ’em.’
Lizzie smiled and said all right, then turned away self-consciously. It all seemed to be happening tonight. The two men she was most interested in were as good as dangling on her string. The realisation excited her. She fancied Stanley more each time she saw him, and it was just as easy to turn to him as to Jesse. Probably easier; at least he was attainable without controversy. A bird in the hand and all that.
As Lizzie moved away she turned to make sure that Jesse Clancey had noticed. He had, but concealed the fact, striking a casual pose and laughing extra-heartily at something Sylvia had said. Lizzie smiled contentedly. Two men patently interested in her; two gorgeous, dashing men. If only she could have both. She had the capacity to handle both until she finally decided which one to marry.
But who to choose? It was so confusing.
Now, with Stanley’s hand in the small of her back guiding her into church, she felt another flush of excitement at the thought of sitting with one admirer while the other yearned jealously for her. She allowed Stanley to lead her into the back pew, the prime location for courting couples. They would have it all to themselves, for it wasn’t a full length pew; one of the massive columns supporting the vaulted roof occupied much of it.
Stanley gallantly opened her Hymns Ancient and Modern and found the first hymn for her. ‘I’ve wanted just the two of us to sit together for ages.’ His smile was devastating. ‘I’ve never been able to pluck up the courage before to ask you. I thought you might laugh at me … being second cousins and all that.’
Lizzie hunched her shoulders with delight, and an exhilarating warmth surged through her at the prospect of a romance so unexpected. ‘Being second cousins doesn’t matter, Stanley. I’m glad you did.’
‘Even first cousins can marry, you know, Lizzie.’
His very words made her hot. Funny how romance could be so spontaneous.
Their folks walked down the centre aisle. Tom Dando, back from The Freebodies, acknowledged Lizzie and Stanley with a nod, and courteously allowed Eve to enter the pew before him. When the women had settled their long skirts and taken off their gloves, and the men had placed their best hats under the pew, they all knelt down and prayed. Lizzie smiled at Stanley over the success of their spontaneous assignation, and with increasing regularity as the service progressed. During the sermons – for there were two; the first, a valediction from the exiting Mr Crowshaw; the second, a greeting from the new vicar – Stanley shuffled close and shamelessly took her hand. Lizzie felt her heart start pounding at the contact, and she blushed once more, in half a mind to withdraw. It was, after all, a liberty and, besides, it could surely never be proper to hold hands in church. But she brazenly allowed her hand to remain in Stanley’s, and a dangerous glow of pleasure enveloped her.
After the service, everyone filed out through the main door. While Mr Crowshaw thanked all for their support in the past, the Reverend Mr John Mainwaring and his wife met his parishioners for the first time, shaking their hands warmly. Many lingered in the churchyard afterwards, chatting, saying what a nice man the new vicar seemed. Since Ezme Clancey was the relief organist, she, Jack and Jesse were expected at a welcoming party at the vicarage, along with other church dignitaries, as were Beccy and Albert Crump. Albert had taken the pledge years ago and was secretary of the Band of Hope in the St. John’s Church of England Temperance Society. Despite Albert, however, Tom Dando claimed defiantly that he and his family were going for a drink or two at The Shoulder of Mutton.
‘Why not come with us, Eve, and bring young Lizzie?’ Sarah suggested. ‘It’ll be a bit o’ company.’
Eve automatically cupped her hand to her good ear.
‘I daresay Eve’s got other things to do, Sarah,’ Tom chided. ‘Leave her be.’
Eve glanced at Tom. She had not caught his words, but his expression alone forbade her accepting. It was unlike him.
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