Thursday, 24 April 2014

To Catch a Demon

This is the first chapter of my new novel, which I hope to publish within the next couple of weeks.  It is called:  To Catch a Demon


 

CHAPTER ONE

 
"Charles Stuart is back in England!" Jasper shouted frantically, his voice bellowing up the stairs and making Diana shudder at the prospect of his presence.  "Quick.  We must leave at once."

"Leave?  To go where exactly?"

His face was crimson and sweaty from the unaccustomed exertion of dragging his bulk up the oak staircase at such a rapid pace.  His hair was wet along his receding hairline from the excessive perspiration to which he was prone.  His stomach hung over his grey flannel breeches and swayed as he moved, making Diana grimace with distaste.…

He called to the maid as he came through the door.

"He has sworn to capture and execute anyone who had anything to do with the old king's death.  That means us."

He strode to his chest and began to pull open the drawers, yanking out his belongings and discarding them onto the bed.

Diana shook her head and stared at him defiantly.  This was the moment for which she had waited ten years, the moment she could finally free herself of this man who had forced her into marriage, had imprisoned and abused her.

She had almost lost hope of ever seeing this day.  Even when Cromwell finally died and she had thought the monarchy must surely be restored then, but it was not to be.  The country had suffered two years of his son, Richard, before parliament finally invited the rightful King to return to his throne.

Now the words she had longed to hear for ten years had been uttered by the foul mouth of Jasper Philbert, arch traitor, sadist, sexual deviant, puritan and her lawful husband.  Charles Stuart is back in England.

"No," she answered.  "That means you."

"Me, you, what's the difference?  You are my wife."

The flustered maid arrived and gave a quick curtsey.

"Get Mistress Philbert's things packed.  We are leaving within the hour."

Diana watched as he left the bedchamber, then her eyes wandered around the familiar walls at the delicate plasterwork, at the beautiful mahogany furniture.  Was it possible that she could at last get her house back, that after all these years she could at last get her life back?

The maid began to open drawers and pack things into boxes.  She did not look up, did not raise her eyes to her mistress.  Jasper returned, still hurrying, with his valet keeping pace behind him.  The young man started to open the drawers in Jasper's chests and pack the contents into similar boxes, while Jasper scooped his things up from the bed where he had tossed them and packed them into a smaller box.

Diana made no move to help the maid.  She was busy planning the best way to escape, the best place to hide.

Finally, he straightened up and stared angrily at his wife.

"Why are you just standing there, Madam?"  Jasper demanded.  "I have booked passage on the Henrietta; it sails for the Americas in two hours time."

"I am not coming," Diana replied.

He stood with his hands on his hips, staring at her angrily.

"Of course you are coming," he declared.  "What else do you think you are going to do?  I realise you are not very bright, Madam, but even you must be able to work out that Charles Stuart will be reclaiming his throne and all my property along with it.  This house will be forfeit."

"This house is not your property," Diana retaliated. "It is mine."

He scoffed.

"It became mine when you became mine, make no mistake about that.  You will have nothing; you will be on the streets and you cannot earn a living there.  That is one skill you will never master."

She bit her lip.  He did not have the power to hurt her, he never had, but if she lacked the skill to earn a living on the streets, she knew who to blame.

"Come, hurry," he said urgently.  "This is no time for your histrionics."

"I told you.  I am not coming."

Her defiance enraged him and he took one long stride across the room to where she stood.  His hand reached out and grabbed her arm, his fingers digging into her flesh and pinching painfully, while his other hand rose high above her head to come down on her face with a hard slap which snapped her neck around.  The two servants looked up sharply, the woman blushed, then they continued with their tasks.  The scene was a familiar one and they had learned to ignore it.

"Now," Jasper said, his hand still firmly gripping Diana's upper arm. With his free hand he began to unfasten his leather belt. "Are you going to get yourself ready, or will a good thrashing make you move faster?"

He did not complete the task of unfastening his belt; he did not have time but it would not have been the first time he had beaten her with his belt.  He released his grip and shoved her against the wall, bouncing the back of her head against the solid oak panelling.  Diana's eyes moved to the embarrassed maidservant as she resisted the need to nurse her injured cheek or to hold her aching head.  She would not give him the satisfaction.  She finally made up her mind and made toward the door.

"Where are you going?"  He demanded

"Privy."

He frowned suspiciously and for one horrifying moment she thought he would insist of going with her, but at last he turned away and began to fill his pockets with his jewellery.  He would not want all those rings on display on a ship.

"Get on with it then!"  He shouted.  "If you make me miss the tide I shall see that you suffer for it."

If he missed the ship, he would be the one to suffer for it.  She would make quite sure that the returning king knew precisely who and where he was.

She hurried downstairs and outside toward the outhouse.  She opened the door and glanced back at the house, at the upstairs windows, to be sure no one was watching.  Once she was sure she was unobserved, she closed the door and sped along behind the outhouse to the barn, where she climbed the ladder to the hay loft and burrowed her way beneath the broken bales of hay.

She had no idea what was going to happen when her husband left; he would have no choice but to continue on to the Americas alone if he could not find her, but she would rather live on the streets than spend the rest of her life on the other side of the world with him.

She could have saved herself a lot of pain and humiliation over the last ten years if she had meekly obeyed his wishes, but she felt compelled to resist him at every opportunity.

The civil war had disrupted the lives of everyone, but none more so than Diana and her parents, Sir William and Lady Ferguson.  Diana had been betrothed as a child to Peter, the son of Sir Edward Spicer, and he, along with the Fergusons, supported the King.  They believed that everyone would support the rightful king and the war would be a mere skirmish when Cromwell learned that he had little support.  After all, whatever one's beliefs, to raise arms against the King was high treason and not many would have the stomach for that.

But eventually it became clear that many people no longer trusted their King.  His son, Charles fled to France, along with some of his loyal followers, among them Sir Edward and his family.  That was the last Diana saw of Peter and she was no longer certain if he were alive or dead.  They had not been able to correspond as both their fathers deemed it too dangerous.

She was only fifteen then but she loved Peter and had anticipated a happy life with him.  When he went to France, Diana thought it was the worst thing that could happen to her.  She knew better now.

She missed Peter so much and each night she would imagine that the King had returned, bringing Peter with him.  They would be married and make love and have babies and live happily ever after.

Then Jasper came and stifled her imaginings for good.

After the execution of the King, Diana and her family had kept to themselves, thankful for the remoteness of their small mansion.  It was out in the English countryside, many miles from the nearest town or village, and if they grew their own vegetables and raised their own livestock for meat, nobody would remember that they were there.

The civil war had been bitter and violent, and Diana's father had lost many  friends who had fought for the King and the royalist cause.  But inevitably the battle had been lost to Cromwell's new model army and since then until his death, he had ruled England as Lord Protector.  His laws were based on his puritan religion and England had become a dismal place with no inns, no theatres, no dancing or even bright colours for the ladies.  Everyone went about in black or grey, women were forced to cover their hair with dreary white caps, as showing long hair to the world was a sign of a loose woman.

Until then, uncovered, long hair had been a sign of a virgin;  now it was just the opposite.

Because of their remoteness, the Fergusons were able to dress in their normal flamboyant manner, with their satins and lace and bright colours, and there was no one to see or object.  They lived quietly with their small staff of servants and had thought to see out the protectorate quietly.  Diana had no hope of a marriage, as there was no one to make a match with her, but she did not want one anyway.  She loved Peter and still hoped one day to see him again, to hold him in her arms again.

Then Jasper Philbert and his small army of roundheads had come and realised that here was a house they had missed.  They could easily see that Diana's father was a royalist; they could tell by their clothing, by the bright colours and jewellery they wore.  But he was, like most parliamentarians, a hypocrite.  

Diana was just sixteen years old the day she saw them riding up to the house.  She called to her mother and father and they all ran to hide in the cellar, but they were too late.  Sir William could not run; he had a lame leg which would not bend and he walked with the aid of a stick.  One of Jasper's men had seen them.

They sat on the dirt floor among the racks of wine and huddled together, holding their breath in the hope they would not be heard, but the footsteps coming down the cellar steps toward them declared that to be a vain hope and sent shivers of fear tingling through their bodies. 

Diana sat holding her mother's hand tightly, their nails biting into each other's flesh, and she felt her mother's body trembling uncontrollably.

"Say nothing," her father ordered.  "Leave it to me."

They were happy to do so, expected him to be able to talk his way out of their predicament, but it was not to be.

They looked up to see the bloated and ruddy face of Jasper Philbert as he leaned over the stair rail and peered at them with a satisfied grin.

"What have we here then?" He muttered.

They could see the men behind him, their little round helmets reflecting the light from the torches in the hallway above them, their swords held ready.

"This is my house," her father started to talk, but he was cut off.

Jasper made a swift movement of his head and the soldiers rushed down the rickety wooden stairs and grabbed him by the arms, dragging him behind them up the stairs.  Frequently he fell onto his face, as they had hold of his arms and he could not put out a hand to save himself.  With his stiff leg he had no hope of keeping up with them.

"What are you doing with my husband?"  Her mother cried in alarm.

"What do you think should be done with traitors, Madam?"

"He is no traitor!  You are the traitors!"

Jasper's fury showed clear in his expression and he hurried down the stairs and grabbed hold of Lady Ferguson. He pulled her roughly to her feet, forcing her out of Diana's grasp, not giving her time to put her feet firmly on the ground.  Diana clambered to her feet and lunged forward in an attempt to help her mother, but one of the soldiers grabbed her arms and held her back.  More soldiers held back the servants; they all watched helplessly as their leader pushed Lady Ferguson down on to the ground.  One of the soldiers knelt down at her head and held her down, while the leader unfastened his breeches, pushed up her skirts and forced himself into her, while she struggled in vain.  He made no attempt to cover her screams; he seemed to want everyone to hear.

Diana was crying and struggling with frustration, but when she closed her eyes against the awful sight, the soldier who held her pushed his sword to her throat and yelled in her ear.

"Open them!"  He cried out.  "You need to know what to expect."

Diana's heart was hammering as she held back tears, knowing that these barbarians would find them entertaining.  When the captain had finished, he got to his feet and yanked his victim up with him, then climbed the stairs to the ground floor, dragging the sobbing woman, who tripped over the stairs as he gave her no chance to walk at a pace she could manage.  

Diana yanked her arm forward, trying to free herself from the firm grip of the soldier who held her, wanting to follow her mother.  She had little doubt that this day would be the last for all of them and she wanted to be with her at the end.  But she was held fast.

"Stay put," he told her gruffly.  "The captain has not finished with you yet."

She knew then, she knew that this awful man would do to her the same as he had done to her mother.  Her knees almost gave way beneath her; she was a virgin and this was not how she had dreamed of parting with that treasure. She had always expected it to be Peter, to whom she would give herself willingly, Peter who would take her virginity in love.

She stood trembling, cursing herself for the weakness, as she watched the captain clambering down the stairs again.  There was no sound from the top, no sign of her mother or father.  He turned to the soldiers who remained.

"Take the servants upstairs," he ordered.  "Give them the choice."

Diana was unsure what he meant by that, but she knew she would not have to wait for long to learn the answer.

He grabbed her arm painfully and held fast to her while she struggled and he watched the soldiers take the servants up the stairs and leave them alone.  She turned defiant eyes on him, shuddered as he leered at her lasciviously.

"Well," she challenged him.  "Is this the wonderful puritans at work?  Persecuting innocent and helpless women?  Degrading us to make yourself feel like a big man?"

His eyes blazed with fury and he slapped her, hard across the face.  That was to be the first of many blows she would receive over the next ten years.

 

***

 

Diana hid beneath the hay in the barn, and tears began to drift down her cheeks as she remembered every ghastly detail of that day, of the last time she had seen her parents alive.  Jasper and his soldiers took them out and hanged them from a tree branch, and Diana awaited the same.  But he had worse in store for her.  After he had raped her on the cellar floor he had locked her in and left her, sobbing hysterically, from pain and bitter disappointment.  Her mother and father were a loving couple and had taught her that the marriage bed was a place of love.  She would never experience that love, not now.  It had been spoiled forever. 

The roundhead captain had gone out to watch her parents' hanging, and on his return he magnanimously told her that she would be spared because he was in need of a wife.

His theft of her virginity had been painful and she was bruised and bleeding and wondered if it would be like this every time.  She shuddered with disgust at his large belly and stinking breath and the idea of marriage to him made her want to jump from a high window.

"I would rather hang like my parents," she protested.

He grinned with satisfaction.

"What would that get me?"  He replied.  "If I hang you, I will get nothing.  If I marry you I will get a ready vessel every time I want it and this house and estate.  It is time I retired and a lovely young wife is just what I need to settle down with."

 

***

 

He had stolen her life and her property, he had taken and sold whatever he wanted from the house and he had paid a minister to marry them, paid him with her money. The man ignored her protests and arguments; he had been well paid to do so, so much for being a man of God.  Once married, all her property legally belonged to Jasper. 

She would not flee, even should the opportunity present itself; it was her house, her lands and despite what the law said, one day she planned to get it all back.  The only way to do that was to kill him, but she never found the opportunity.  If she was going to do it, and she would have done so eagerly, she needed it to look as though it were an accident or natural causes.  She could find nothing that could be used as poison and he kept her under close supervision the whole time.  She was not even allowed to go to the nearest town without him or to buy from a travelling peddler. 

Once she had found what she thought were toadstools in the woods beside the house and she picked them eagerly. This would be ideal;  should anyone suspect poison it could pass for an accident, toadstools confused with mushrooms. She took them to the kitchen and prepared and cooked them, then she found a valuable brooch she had hidden away and bribed the cook to keep quiet about her involvement.  None of the servants cared for him at all and it would likely not trouble their consciences if he died as a result of their negligence.

She waited impatiently for signs that the poison was taking effect but instead of death came hallucinations; he seemed to think she was an angel come to punish him for his evil deeds.  If only!  But once he had recovered, the fear of that avenging angel soon disappeared.  That was as close as she had been able to get to finding anything with which to dispose of him.  She spent a lot of time searching the forest for more poisonous plants, but found nothing, not even a simple nightshade berry.  She supposed that her father had ordered all such plants dug out and destroyed when she was a child, lest she poison herself with them.

Each night he would force himself on her while she turned her face away and struggled to be free of his heavy body.  It took a long time before she realised that the struggling was firing his passions, that he enjoyed the resistance.  After that she just closed her eyes tightly and lie rigid; he hated that.  He even slapped her a few times to try to make her resist him, but she was determined not to react and her stillness made the sessions of abuse shorter.  Once he had forced his ugly organ into her mouth, but she bit down hard and drew blood.  He screamed and yanked her to her feet, grabbed his belt and beat her until she bled, but he never repeated the disgusting act.  It also kept him away from her until he had healed, so she thought it was worth it.

Each night when he had finished with her she would go into her little dressing room where she kept a large bowl and lots of hot water.  There she would douche herself and submerge herself in the bowl in the hope that his seed did not take.

She was unsure whether he wanted a son or not, but she had no intention of breeding one for him if she could avoid it.

Now she heard her name being called from outside in the grounds.  She had been in the barn for a good half hour and she could hear his harsh voice, yelling angrily.

"Diana!  Get yourself out here!"

She stayed where she was, longing to peer through the slats in the wooden walls but afraid of being seen or even heard.  He yelled again.

"I have no intention of missing the tide for you," he shouted.  "I shall be forced to go without you and you will be left to fend for yourself.  That is not as easy as a spoilt little slut like you might think."  Silence but for his footsteps crunching on the gravel.  "Get out here, you bitch!  Wait till I get my hands on you!  You will regret this, I promise you!"

She heard the carriage wheels, she heard Jasper's angry voice calling again but still she did not move;  her ears were filled with the drumming of her heartbeat as she held her breath and lie still.

"Very well!  Have it your own way.  Do not think that the King will pardon you;  he will assume you supported your husband, which is what a decent woman should do.  But we both know that you are no decent woman."

He was trying to anger her in the hope that she would give herself away to retaliate and she knew it.  It was very difficult for her to keep silent, when she really wanted to tell him what she thought.  That trait had left her with a lot of scars and caused her a lot of pain over the years, but he seemed to enjoy it.  It gave him an excuse to beat her, which he seemed to savour more than anything else.  She bit her lips to keep them silent and at last heard the carriage roll away.

She stayed still in the hay loft for another hour just in case it was some trick.  If he had had spoken the truth, he would have gone by now.  The Henrietta would not wait for him and he could not afford to be left behind.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Sky On Demand - warning

Ok, I probably missed it somewhere in the small print, but did you know that when you download a boxed set from the on demand facility, record it to your hard drive,  when it disappeared from the list, it also disappears from your hard drive?  I didn't and I think it is a damned cheek that they can steal things from my hard drive on my Sky plus box.
 
So, the Musketeers series, which I had carefully preserved, has vanished both from my hard drive and from my on demand selection, so I cannot record it again.  Looks like I am going to have to buy the DVD set which is £17 on Amazon.  Don't think it's cheaper on Ebay, because it isn't.
 
I am also stuck on Rookie Blue now.  I couldn't wait for the repeat of season four which started last Saturday, so I downloaded the whole series from on demand.  Now I cannot wait for season 5, which is supposed to be starting sometime this year.
 
Do you Sky viewers have never miss set up?  If not, be warned about that as well.  It is a Sky service, for Sky customers, but you cannot use a Sky email address "for security reasons"!!!  What security reasons?  Unbelievable.

Monday, 7 April 2014

What killed Peaches Geldorf?

I am shocked about the death of this 25 year old.  It seems rather more than a coincidence that she had just posted a photograph of herself with her mother, Paula Yates, on the internet.  25 year olds don't just die for no reason.

The news is not something I usually bother with but I have to confess I am very interested in learning what happened to her.  I think we all feel for her family.

Friday, 4 April 2014

The Scent of Roses

THE SCENT OF ROSES


CHAPTER ONE

 

"I am promised to Lord Christopher," Felice repeated for the third time. She was growing impatient, having spent the last hour or so going over the same ground, repeating the same argument.  "It makes no difference how many times you declare your disapproval, how many unlikely schemes you invent to lure me away.  The promises our fathers made can no longer be honoured.  You have to accept that, Thomas, and wish me well."

Viscount Lindsay frowned and shook his head slowly, reluctant to accept the inevitable.

"But you love me," he insisted.

"I have never said that I love you," she argued with an impatient sigh. 

"We were pledged to each other from the cradle," he said.  "We have grown up knowing that one day we would marry.  Does that mean nothing?"

"It does not mean that I love you," she said.  "It means that at the time a prospective marriage between our two families was advantageous.  Things have changed since then; your father broke the betrothal agreement because I no longer have a dowry and you do not have the means to save my father from his own folly.  Lord Christopher does and he will keep his word. It would disgrace him to see his wife's family degraded, or do you doubt that he is a man of his word?"

"No," said Thomas reluctantly. "I have heard that he is, in fact.  But he has other reputations which are not so noble.  I am also suspicious as to why he would part with so much of his wealth to marry you."

Felice stared at him in astonishment.  It was hard to believe that all her life she had been content with the idea of marrying this man, when he could make such a remark.  He had gone down in her estimation this evening, to come here with his meaningless schemes to persuade her to renege on her promise to marry a wealthy and powerful man, when he had nothing better or even equal to offer in return.  If she had loved him, as he seemed to believe, he would be causing her great distress, but that had obviously not occurred to him.

"I am sure you did not intend to insult me with that remark," Felice commented archly.  "Is it so unbelievable that a man might give a fortune to win my hand?"

"Another man might; I most certainly might, but not him, not Lord Christopher. He cannot love you; he is incapable of love."  Thomas paused for a moment, looking hopefully at her, while she studied his face, wondering if he really believed that.  "Did you know that his first wife died in childbirth and he had so little respect for her that he did not even give her a proper burial.  She lies in a pauper's grave in the village churchyard, no memorial stone, nothing to mark her passing but a rough, wooden cross."

Felice felt her heart sink, not only at this new tale but that Thomas would tell her such a thing, even should it prove to be true.  Surely she was better off not knowing.

"Did you come here tonight deliberately to frighten me?"  She asked him.

"I came in the hope of persuading you to run away with me.  I can give you a comfortable life."

"But you cannot pay my father's debts, you cannot restore my family's reputation," she argued.  "My father's creditors have been kept at bay with the promise of this marriage, a promise made to them by Lord Christopher himself.  You are asking me to force him to break his word, which I have heard he holds in high regard.  How do you expect he will react to that?"

Thomas seemed reluctant to answer that question.  She thought it likely that he,  along with many others, was afraid of her future husband, although he would never admit it.

"Were it any other man, I would not be so concerned," Thomas persisted. "Besides, they are your father's creditors, not yours,"

She shook her head in dismay.

"My father is dear to me," she said firmly, "as is my family's good name.  You are not dear to me."

"I was dear enough before," he muttered.

Her eyes held his for a moment, while she cursed him for coming here and unsettling her like this, for bringing her tales of her bridegroom of which she would rather have remained in ignorance. 

"I was content with my marriage plans before tonight," she said sadly.  "I was even happy to be marrying a man who is kind enough to help us.  Indeed, I was looking forward to being a good wife to him, then you came here with tales to frighten me.  Now I know not what to expect, now I am dreading what tomorrow may hold.  I trust that satisfies you."

Certainly His Lordship had the reputation of being ruthless, but that could not deter Felice.  Her alternative was to marry Thomas with no dowry to support her should he die, and to leave her father to rot in debtor's prison. Lord Christopher was all that stood between her family and ruin and she was only grateful that he had noticed her in time to save them.

It was growing dark in the small porch outside the house, and the autumn damp was closing in.  She glanced down at the frayed hem of her brocade gown and pulled her fur lined cloak closer about her shoulders; only she knew how worn and thin was the fur inside.  This cloak had belonged to her mother and she had died ten years ago.  Felice had but one wish now, and that was for Thomas to go home and leave her in peace.

"You know no more of him than I do," she said. "He is powerful and wealthy; that is all either of us know about him.  Anything else is mere rumour."

"His poor wife's grave in the village churchyard is not rumour," he replied.  "Go, see for yourself.  Her name was Sonia and she should be resting in the family vault with her predecessors, not in a grave no better than that of the poorest peasant.  And he is reputed to be a violent man, controlled by his temper."

She had heard that herself and people hereabouts did seem to fear him, but whatever his temperament or his character, she had no choice.  If she did not marry him, her father would lose everything and she would not let that happen, not while it was within her power to prevent it.

"Reputations are not always justified," she remarked hopefully.

"He is also reputed to keep a peasant woman who has his children.  I hope you do not expect him to be faithful."

She looked sharply at Thomas, not sure whether he was now inventing tales of his own.  She had heard nothing of this peasant woman, but the news came as no great surprise and made no difference to her plans.  Nothing could make a difference to her plans.

"I do not expect any man to be faithful, Thomas," she said calmly.  "It is not in their nature."

"I would be faithful to you," Thomas insisted.  "I love you. You should not be bartering yourself for your father's sake.  Let him sort out his own problems."

She stared at him with contempt.  How could anybody be so ignorant as to make such a stupid remark?  Whatever Lord Christopher's character might be, she was rather glad she would not, after all, be marrying Viscount Lindsay.

"If I thought for one moment that you really did love me, I would feel sympathy for you.  But you are only annoyed that you have lost a possession, like a small child with his favourite toy.  My father's problems are my problems," she said firmly.  "Lord Christopher will save him from debtor's prison and by so doing will save the good name of my family.  That is well worth bartering myself for, as you so elegantly put it."

"I will not give up.  I have spent my life expecting you to be my bride."

"And tomorrow I will be Lord Christopher's bride and you must look elsewhere.  I am sorry, Thomas, but this is the way it has to be."

She got to her feet to indicate that the meeting was at an end, then turned to face him.

"Please leave me alone now, Thomas.  Tomorrow I will be the Countess of Waterford, and I intend to make Lord Christopher a good and faithful wife.  I shall be grateful if you will respect that and leave me alone."

"I never realised how cold you could be, Felice," he persisted.  "You do not even know this man, you have never once spoken to him, but you accept that you will be his wife without a qualm.  You will spend tomorrow night in his bed. Do you think it is an accident that half the countryside fear him?  He must have done something to earn that reputation."

Felice hardly needed him to tell her that.  She knew very well that he was a formidable and powerful man who struck terror into the hearts of many, but all she could do was to be as good a wife as she could, and hope he was not violent for violence sake.  If he was, she was strong enough to live with it, strong enough to find ways to appease him.

"If what you say about him is true, it would not be safe for you to be seen with me."

"I am not afraid."

So typical, thinking of himself as always.  She knew nothing about the man she was to wed, nothing whatever.  All she knew were rumours, mostly spread by his enemies of which he seemed to have many.  She should be afraid to marry such a man, but she feared penury more. As she walked to the door to her father's manor house, she knew a little spark of gratitude for His Lordship.  He was not only rescuing her father, he was rescuing her from a marriage with a weak and selfish man who would put her safety at risk to get his own way.

She turned back to face him as she reached the door.

"What do you suppose he will do to me if you continue to pursue me?" She said after a few minutes thought. "Or does that not matter?"

 

***

 

Lord Christopher gazed at his own reflection and sighed impatiently.

"Do you not think, Howard," he addressed his valet, "that this outfit is a little flamboyant for my tastes.  It is too fancy; makes me look like an idiot."

"My Lord," Howard replied hesitantly, "it is your wedding day."

"And that is special, is it?"

"You know well that it is, My Lord."

"Did not work out too well the last time, did it?"  Lord Christopher mumbled, wondering just why he allowed himself to speak so intimately to this one particular manservant.  Perhaps because the man had been with him all his life and was the only one in his employ who was not terrified of him.

"Pray God this marriage is worthy of you," Howard replied.  "I am sure Lady Felice will be a faithful wife."

"She had better be," Christopher answered with a note of anger.  "If she is not, she will regret it."

Howard shuddered, knowing that his master was not given to making empty threats.

Christopher adjusted his hat, squirming his neck to make the thing a little more comfortable.  He hated new clothes; they were always so stiff and uncomfortable and he always made Howard wear them before him, to make them looser and easier to wear.  But Howard had talked him out of making him wear his wedding suit before him; the man had the damned cheek to say it was the wrong thing to do.  Just as if Christopher followed rules of etiquette, or rules of anything else for that matter.

He had been half heartedly looking for a suitable wife since his last one died, but he had so far found no one he believed he could trust, not even the one he was to wed this day.  He had to marry someone, had to attempt to sire an heir to his title and his estates, as there was no one else and if he died childless the whole lot would go to the crown.  Christopher believed that the crown had enough money and he was not a great supporter of the present King.

He wanted to help his bride's father for his own reasons; he did not like to see a fellow earl degraded as it did nothing to support his own position.  Lord Sutton had little left save his pride and his daughter.  The first made him refuse Lord Christopher's attempt to pay off his debts; it seemed the man regarded such an offer as charity and would make him feel more degraded than his present circumstances.  The second was another matter.  Lady Felice's long standing betrothal to a young viscount had been dishonoured because her father had gambled away her dowry, and despite her beauty and fine heritage, she had received no offers since.  It was possible she would be grateful for Christopher's offer of marriage and such an arrangement would satisfy her father, make him feel less of a charity case and more like a nobleman arranging an advantageous marriage for his daughter in the normal way.

Even so, Christopher was surprised that Lord Sutton would not agree without his daughter's agreement.  He found that very odd indeed, considering the marriage was his only hope of redemption.  Lord Sutton obviously did not want his daughter to marry Christopher, and he held no malice toward him for that.  He knew his reputation was one that would make the most indifferent father think twice about allowing a marriage with him, and the pauper's grave in which he had buried his late wife did nothing to dispel that reputation.

When Sonia had died, people had thought it a disgrace that someone of his wealth and standing should bury his countess in such a way.  Of course, no one had the courage to tell him so, but he had his spies and he did not miss the scowls that followed him wherever he went.  None of it bothered him.  He could have made his reasons public, but why should he?  It was nobody else's concern and they could think whatever they liked.  He knew the truth and that was enough for him.

Everyone of any importance had been invited to this wedding and not a single one of them had refused.  Apart from being too curious to stay away, none of them wanted Lord Christopher as an enemy.

Once he had made his offer of marriage, he watched the house to catch a glimpse of the woman who was to be his bride.  He had seen a portrait of her in Sutton Hall, but he had never before seen her in the flesh, never seen that the porcelain complexion was not a mere brush stroke by a clever artist, that the cornflower blue of her eyes was not simply an imaginative touch on the part of that artist.  She was beautiful, really beautiful, the sort of beauty that made people turn their heads to watch her as she went past, the sort of beauty that made both men and women catch their breath in awe.

He wanted to present his bride with a fine piece of jewellery to mark the day, and had refused to accept her father's word that his daughter would prefer simple flowers.  He thought perhaps Lord Sutton felt Christopher had spent enough on them, and wanted to save him the extra expense.  But the man had been so insistent, that he had given way and ordered the roses, while he also made sure he had a precious stone to give her if she should be less than delighted.

He was marrying this woman solely to persuade her father to take his money.  Christopher smiled a little in amusement at the thought.

"My Lord?"  Howard saw his smile in the mirror and was quite taken aback.  His Lordship was not given to smiling.

 

***

 

When the servants brought the rose scented bathwater into Felice's bedchamber that morning, she realised that this would be the last time she would awake in these familiar surroundings.  This bedchamber had been hers since she was a small child and she had never slept anywhere else.  Tonight she would sleep in Waterford castle, the home of Lord Christopher; she would be his Countess and she could only hope that he would treat her fairly.  Thomas' tale about his first wife and her pauper's grave made her shiver, but she could not afford to believe it.

Being married was a frightening idea.  She had never spoken to the man, only seen him from across a crowded marketplace and for a few minutes when he came to arrange the marriage with her father.  She had no real idea what manner of man he was, but tonight she was expected to share his bed and what else she did not know.  She was fairly sure that babies were not made simply by sharing a bed with a man, but she could not imagine what else one had to do.  

Of course he would want babies, sons.  Why else would a man like him marry at all?  She still had no idea why he had chosen her, but perhaps it was some perverse need to control her father, Earl Sutton, who had squandered his fortune at the  gaming tables and would face criminal charges were it not for this earl who would pay off his debts and help him to begin earning income from his estate once more.  All that in return for the hand in marriage of his daughter.

Lord Christopher could have any of the fine ladies who were available; he was an important man who had the choice of many, so just why he had chosen Felice she could not imagine.

She had made no attempt to refuse this marriage.  She had agreed willingly, even eagerly, when her father had told her of the offer and she had agreed with a sigh of relief that they would not be turned out in the street after all.

Felice was a proud woman, young though she was.  She knew her place in the world should be privileged and she could not avoid a certain disappointment in her father for degrading them both in the eyes of the world, as well as in her own eyes.  She was a person who would always be true to herself, no matter what the world threw at her, and she had made a pledge to herself that she would do her best to make Lord Christopher a good wife.  She would endure anything to do so, if the need arose, but she would prefer to win him over, to elicit some affection from him, if that were possible.

This day her blonde hair shone and she smelled of roses, her favourite perfume.  There was a time when her father would send for the flowers from Europe when they were out of season here in England, but no more.  Now he could not afford such luxuries and she had not seen a fresh rose since the summer.  Scenting the bathwater this morning had taken the last of the dried flowers she had saved from then. She so wanted a bouquet of roses for her wedding, but that was an extravagance too far.

Once she was dry, her hair was brushed and dried before the fire and her servants proceeded to dress her in the embroidered Chemise and white satin kirtle that Lord Christopher had provided for her to wear.  She tried to resist the need to feel the cloth, to run her fingers over the fine fabric, smell its newness after all this time of wearing patched up, tattered cloth, but the temptation was too great.  The satin was smooth and soft to her touch, the chemise embroidered with delicate little pink roses especially for her.

Over the kirtle was a see through gown of cloth of gold which shimmered in the sunlight from the window opening.  Her father could not even afford to provide her wedding clothes, and for that she was ashamed.  But she bore him no malice. He had always done his best for her, even after her mother's death when he failed to tell her of the mess he was getting himself into.  He had educated her, taught her to read, which was not something most people could do, especially females.  

If anything, on closer scrutiny of Viscount Lindsay, she was grateful that she had the opportunity to wed another man, even though all she knew of him was his fearsome reputation. What she did know for certain was that men did not acquire reputations like that of Lord Christopher by being weak and cowardly.

"You look beautiful, My Lady," said the one maidservant they still kept. Lord Sutton had freed all his serfs and servants or sent them off to work for other lords when his plight became so dire, he could not longer afford to keep them.  She had no wages, only her bed and board, and she stayed out of loyalty to Felice and her father.  Without her there would be no one.  The servants who had brought her bath and helped with her hair and dress had been sent by Lord Christopher, another shameful gift.

"Thank you Lisa," she said softly. "You know I would really like you to come with me.  I shall ask Lord Christopher at the first opportunity."

Lisa shivered as though she felt a sudden chill.

"It is very good of you, My Lady, but your father needs me."

"And?"  Felice asked.  "There is more.  Come; you can tell me."

"I wish you every happiness with Lord Christopher, My Lady," Lisa replied pertly, "but I am glad it is you who will share his bed tonight and not me."

Felice laughed.  So the rumours had found their way into the servants' ears.  It mattered not.  She was grateful, tremendously grateful.  She loved her father too much to be anything else and she was only pleased she could do something to help him.  She would never show him anything but joy over this marriage, no matter what it may hold in store for her.

Felice had known about Lord Christopher for most of her life, ever since his own father had died when he was a very young man and he had succeeded to the title.  She had seen him once across a market place and thought him handsome, just the sort of man to whom she was attracted.  She had heard tales of his ruthlessness but never thought to think long about them.  After all, he was nothing to her, just a local earl and one who had more land and more power than most.  When she had been told of his offer of marriage, she had been shocked at first, recalling the rumours about him, but when she had given it some thought, that shock had turned quickly to delight.  Ruthless he may be but he must have some goodness in him, or he would not be offering to save her family, her father and she would always thank him for that.

She felt an ache in her throat as she thought of the things that her bridegroom had provided, things that should have been provided by her father and she felt grateful all over again.  She could hardly wait to get to the church, to take her vows before God and put her life of poverty behind her.  She could hardly wait to restore her father's pride and return him to his rightful place in the world, but most of all she could hardly wait to get to know this man who would take her as his bride.  Ruthless and fearsome he may be, but there was also a side to him that was extremely generous and kind to be providing all these things, and that was the man she wanted to know.

There came a gentle knock at the door and Lord Sutton opened it and stepped through.  He wore a smile but she could see behind it, see that he was holding on to an ache of his own.

"You are beautiful," he whispered.  "You look just like your dear mother on our wedding day.........except that she wore the Sutton necklace which I no longer possess.  You are the only possession I have left to give away, and I wish more than anything I could give you to a worthier man."

"What on earth do you mean?"  She protested.  "Lord Christopher is a worthy man.  He will make me a fine husband and you will not have to worry any more."

She held out her hand to him and he kissed it, then held on to it.

"In Pagan times, the tribe would choose their most beautiful virgin as a sacrifice to appease their evil god. I feel as though that is exactly what I am doing, sacrificing my most beautiful maiden to the evil god who is Lord Christopher."  He paused and swallowed to keep his lips from creasing up.  "I am so sorry, Felice.  I wanted to give you so much but you have been forced to break your betrothal to the Viscount and marry this fearsome stranger to keep me from the punishment I am owed."

"Father," she said, taking his arm, "I cannot tell what the future will hold for me now, but if there is one thing about this arrangement for which I am grateful, it is that I will no longer be marrying Viscount Lindsay."

Earl Sutton looked in surprise at his daughter.

"I thought you were fond of him," he commented.

"So did I," she answered, "until last night, when he showed his true colours.  Do not fret about me, Father.  I am sure I will be perfectly content with my new husband and my new home."  She paused thoughtfully for a moment before going on:  "I can only hope that he is perfectly content with his new wife."

"If he is anything of a man, he will love you."

She took his arm and they descended the stairs to the carriage that awaited, the carriage sent by Lord Christopher.  Her father still kept a carriage, but it was old and unsafe, the paint peeling and the wood rotten, certainly not fit for a noblewoman to arrive at her own wedding in.

As her father opened the door, she saw on the seat a beautiful bouquet of white roses, wrapped up in cloth of gold.  She picked it up tentatively, almost afraid it was an illusion which would vanish on first contact.  She read the note from her bridegroom.  "Lovely though these flowers may be, they cannot overshadow the beauty of my bride."

She gasped and buried her face in the flowers.  Her eyes met her father's to see that he had turned his head away, once more ashamed that he had not been able to provide them, that it had been left to this stranger who was about to own them both.

"You must have told him," she said softly.  "He could not have known about the roses unless you told him."

He looked shamefaced again.

"He asked me if you had a particular jewel you preferred.  I thought you would prefer the roses," he said.  "Was I right?"

She put her arms around his neck and kissed his cheek.

"Of course you were, Father.  Thank you."

"Thank Lord Christopher," he replied.  "I did not think he believed me."

Felice spent the short journey to the village church with a little smile on her lips as she buried her face in the sweet and half forgotten scent of the roses.

 

***

 

There were a lot of people inside the church, all standing and watching her arrive, watching her father lead her to the altar to be given to this handsome man who was to be her husband. She wondered if any or all of them knew just why she was marrying him, whether they knew of her father's shame and the thought made her flush with embarrassment. 

But she saw that he was watching her and the look of admiration in his eyes was not lost on her. He was so tall, Felice barely came up to his chest, and he was resplendent in embroidered gold satin, with a matching ermine lined hat covering his dark hair and a neatly trimmed dark beard.

Her heart fluttered a little as reality presented itself at last.  She seemed to have been in a little trance since Lord Christopher had made his offer, not really believing that it would come to pass.  But here she was and as she drew close to him and her eyes met his, he gave her a smile that warmed her heart.

"Thank you for the roses, My Lord," she whispered as the priest appeared before them.  He gave a little bow of his head in acknowledgement, then the ceremony proceeded.  She understood no Latin, and neither did anyone else in the church, yet she knew she was married at the end just the same.

She took his arm and allowed him to lead her slowly through the churchyard to the lychgate, to his waiting carriage. There were many people following them, wedding guests as well as villagers come to watch, and Felice felt conspicuous as she walked among them.  Everybody was laughing and smiling, except for one lone woman who stood outside the churchyard and looked down at the wedding party from a hill in the distance.  She wore rough linen and a peasant's cap covered her hair, allowing only a few blonde tendrils to escape.  She was not smiling; she looked angry, if anything, and Felice recalled Thomas' tale of a peasant family.

Felice turned her eyes away from the woman and glanced surreptitiously at the edge of the churchyard where the poor had their final resting places.  There she saw a pile of earth covered with grass and a wooden cross with only the words Sonia and her child.

So it was true.  Her new husband, her very wealthy and important new husband, had buried his first wife in a pauper's grave with no respect and no remorse.  Felice's heart sank and she was suddenly filled with dread.  What was the story behind Sonia's untimely death that her husband had done that to her, with no respect for her memory, not even a thought for the opinions of his peers?  Felice could not even imagine what crime she had committed, but she hoped it was not because she had failed to give him a healthy son and had not survived to try again.  That would be callous in the extreme, but from what she had heard, he was quite capable of such an act.

Mirielle

MIRIELLE


CHAPTER ONE

 

1976

 

         Mirielle Standish was waiting.   Ever since she could remember she’d had this odd feeling that she was expecting something, though what she did not know. It was as though she were just biding her time, waiting for her life to begin.

         As she got off the bus which stopped at the end of her road, she looked down the street and could spot her house easily.  It was the only one that stood out like the proverbial sore thumb, though what sore thumbs had to do with anything she could not say.  They were neat houses, all in a row, joined together, all much of a muchness as they say, except the one with the shabby front door and the grey net curtains, like the wrong washing powder in a tv advertisement.

         Mirielle grimaced, then started to walk slowly toward her home.  She could never think of it as home, though.  Somehow she just did not feel that she belonged there.

         She glanced surreptitiously into all the living rooms that she passed, just to see if inside was as neat and clean as outside.  Of course, it was.  It was only her own house which looked like it hadn’t been cleaned since Jesus was a lad.

         Having reached her gate, she strolled down the path, reluctant to actually get there, but she was longing for warmth.  It was cold outside, this November being colder than normal, and she knew there would be a warm fire to sit beside.  She knew her mother had been sitting beside it all day.

         She turned the key reluctantly and heard her mother’s voice as soon as she closed the door behind her.

         “Mi’elle!  Is that you?”  Who else would it be?  Thought Mirielle.  She did not answer.  “Put the kettle on love, there’s a good girl.  I just want to see the end of this.”

         Mirielle glanced into the living room as she passed and closed her eyes quickly against the glare.  The new colour television had been delivered last week and despite her pleas, her parents had the colour turned full on.  Couldn’t they see that it didn’t look natural, that all the faces were orange?  That nowhere is the grass quite that green, the sky that vivid blue?

         It didn’t matter what she said; they had paid for colour and they did not feel they were getting their money’s worth if it wasn’t full on.  It spoiled every programme she wanted to watch, although she didn’t do a lot of sharing the living room and TV with her mother and father.  She preferred to be upstairs in her own room, where the fresh air spray which she had bought with her own pocket money kept the air smelling of roses and the furniture smelled of polish, in her own little domain, where the mirrors gleamed and the woodwork glowed white.

         She looked around the living room, at the overflowing ashtray on the coffee table, at the sideboard drawers which would not close properly because of all the useless contents stuffed inside.  The carpet was threadbare and had bits of hardened mud on it, the skirting boards were dirty and she could barely see out of the windows.  With all the smoke which hung in the air, she could barely see the windows at all.

         She shuddered and coughed, then made her way to the kitchen to put the kettle on.  She shuddered again.  Last night’s washing up was still in the sink, sticking out of floating grease.  She took off her coat and rolled up her sleeve to fish around for the plug to let the water out.  There was nowhere else to empty the cold teapot except the broken mug on the worktop which was full to the brim with soggy tea leaves.  Just looking at it made her feel physically sick.

         Once the kettle was plugged in, she made her way upstairs to her own room.  As soon as she opened the door, the change in the air hit her like a cold and fresh ocean wave.  She looked in the mirror, and frowned in irritation.  There was a greasy thumbprint on the glass, a thumbprint that was not her own.  She had asked her mother time and time again not to go into her room, but for some reason the woman could not leave it alone.  What did she think she was doing?  She wouldn’t find any secrets here, though Mirielle was quite sure she hadn’t looked.  Her mother was not the kind that would be suspicious of her only daughter.  It would never occur to her that Mirielle might have anything to hide.

         She took a tissue from the box on her bedside table and rubbed away at the thumb print till it had quite gone.  She had been asking her father to put a lock on her door for months now, but his excuse was that it was dangerous.  How would they get to her if the house caught fire?  She didn’t want to lock it when she was inside, she told him, only when she was out.  But of course, he didn’t understand.

         Beneath her pillow she had a movie magazine.  She didn’t normally waste her money on these things, but the picture on the front cover had caught her eye and she had bought it, spending some of the precious savings she had been squirreling away for years.  She held the magazine up to the mirror, with herself beside it.  The resemblance was uncanny, to say the least.

         The woman in the picture was perhaps in her late twenties, but that did not deter from the fact that they both had the same almost black, wavy hair, the same colour eyes, the same even features.   The article inside was about the model whose career had suddenly taken her into the world of films, where her new movie was making her a household name.  Natalie Simmons, the latest star to brighten the big screen.

         Mirielle read through the article and memorised the details of the star’s life, her humble beginnings and her rise to stardom.

         “M’elle!” Her mother’s voice bellowed up the stairs.  “Egg and chips all right?”

         Her mother always sounded like an angry cat when she called Mirielle’s name.  She often wondered why she had given her such a fancy name, if she couldn’t even pronounce it.  She asked her once.  Apparently she had been named after some French singer her dad really liked.

         Good thing she wasn’t a boy then; she might have been called Elvis.  She turned her mind back to the prospect of yet more egg and chips.

         “Again?”  She called back.

         “Well, I haven’t had time to go shopping,” her mother replied.

         Of course not, not since the colour television had arrived.  Mirielle changed out of her immaculate school uniform, taking a clothes brush to her skirt and blazer and hanging them up in her wardrobe.  She took her white blouse into the bathroom, where she poured a small amount of washing powder into the little sink and carefully washed the blouse, rinsing it thoroughly before hanging it over the bath on a hanger.  She always washed her own clothes; she didn’t want them to look like the net curtains.

         The other girls at school had no idea where Mirielle lived, much less how she lived.  They knew which part of town it was, but nothing more.  She never invited any of her classmates back and if they invited her, she made an excuse not to go.  She never wanted to get so close to any of them that they might learn her secrets.  Besides, she didn’t feel she had much in common with any of them.  Though pleasant enough, their heads were filled with boys and film stars, the latest pop singer or the next new band.  Or in lots of cases, the horse shows they had won.

         Downstairs her mother was standing in the doorway to the living room watching the television as she peeled a potato.  Mirielle had heard the theme tune for Crossroads as she came down the hallway.

         “I didn’t know she had red hair,” Mrs Standish remarked.  “Did you know she had red hair, M’elle?”

         Mirielle glanced at Meg Richardson on the screen and wondered what was so fascinating about this tedious programme with its far fetched scenarios.  May as well watch Star Trek; at least that was supposed to be far fetched.

         She cleared a space at the dining table and went into the kitchen to get a cloth.  The washing up was still there, colder and greasier.  She soaked a cloth from the tap and went back in the living room to wipe the table. 

         It was a big room, big enough to accommodate the dining table as well as a sofa and armchair.  And the television, of course.

         The room was at the back of the house, opening on to the garden if it were possible that the French windows still opened.  Mirielle could not remember them ever being opened no matter what the weather.  The room at the front was traditionally kept for best, for visitors, not that the Standishes ever had any visitors.  Just as well, really, since because nobody ever entered that room, it was thick with dust.

        

 

***

 

Maureen and Dave Standish were both war babies.  They were born into a time when everyone had their ration books and when there were nightly air raids.  They would all sleep in their clothes so that they could get down to the shelter in their back yard quickly.

         They neither of them really remembered that time too well of course, being as they were only three when the war ended, but their parents talked about it enough and Maureen particularly had a real fear of loud noises, and of being woken up in the night.

         They had met at the local dancehall where they were playing Del Shannon’s ‘Runaway’.  That was number 2 in the hit parade at the time and Maureen was just sitting at the side with her friend when Dave came up and asked her to dance.  They hit it off straight away, both being laid back, easy going people.  Nothing phased either of them, nothing made them cross.  They just strode through everything that happened and never got excited about anything much.

         They fell for each other in a big way.  It was only six months later that they got married, in a cut price affair in the local church.  They couldn’t afford a proper, sit down meal so they had a buffet and Maureen made her own wedding dress.  She had been good at sewing in those days, but she didn’t have much call for it now.  Mirielle wouldn’t have worn anything home made – these youngsters are so fussy about their clothes. 

They had nowhere to live, so Dave’s mum and dad let them have their spare room.

         Maureen had wanted to go on the pill straight away, but her doctor said that they didn’t know enough about them and as she’d had rheumatic fever as a child, it probably wouldn’t be safe.

         She had returned from the doctors feeling a bit bewildered about it all.  She was a very naive girl, and believed her mother when she told her that if she couldn’t go on the pill, the only other thing was withdrawal.

         Dave didn’t much like the sound of that, but Maureen was adamant that her mum knew best, till he got her an appointment with the Family Planning Clinic.

         “You’d better take your marriage certificate with you,” he told her, “or they might not see you without proof that you’re a married woman.”

         So Maureen caught the bus that evening to keep her appointment.  She was nervous and embarrassed; she had already had to talk to the doctor about these things and now she had to do it all again.

         As she gave her name at the desk, she noticed that all the women who were waiting had their stockings around their ankles and were clutching their knickers with their handbags.  She went and sat beside a middle aged woman, someone she felt she might be able to confide in, and noticed that she, too, had her stockings round her ankles.  She tapped the woman on the shoulder.

         “Why,” she asked nervously, “has everyone got their knickers off?”

         “Why do you think?” She replied, then her expression softened as she realised that Maureen really had no idea.  “It’s so they can examine you....inside.”

         “Well,” said Maureen.  “I’ll wait till I get inside then.”

         The woman shook her head.

         “No, love, I mean so they can examine inside you.”

         Maureen was so shocked she almost burst into tears.

         “They can’t do that,” she cried.  “That’s dangerous.  I’m not having that.”

         She gathered up her handbag and ran out of the door, all the way to the bus stop.  She was still wondering if the woman was pulling her leg, but she certainly didn’t seem as though she was.

         The very idea of someone doing that!

         Maureen’s mum had told her that it was always dangerous to touch anything ‘down there’ but as the bus slowly made its way back toward her in-laws house she began to wonder if perhaps she had been wrong, like she was wrong about not washing her hair when she had a period and the sanitary towels.

         That was probably the worst embarrassment of Maureen’s school days.  When she had started, her mum had found old sheets and torn them into squares.  She folded them up and gave them to Maureen, along with safety pins to pin the ends to her vest.  And when they were used and her mother had gathered enough of them, she would boil them in a saucepan on the stove to be used next month. 

         Maureen never stopped to wonder if that saucepan still got used for stews as well, all she knew was that she suffered terrible soreness and chaffing because of those rags.

         Then she overheard the girls at school joking about at PE time.  Nobody did PE when they had what Maureen’s mum always referred to as ‘them other things round you.’  They were joking about their excuse for getting out of PE coming in a little blue box.  Once again Maureen had no idea what they were talking about, but she plucked up the courage to ask one of the girls.

         She got laughed at; she expected that, but at least she got to see what they were on about.

         That afternoon after school she took herself into the chemist on her way home and found a whole shelf of little blue boxes, as well as little white boxes and all other colours.  She felt cheated, but when she told her mother she did not believe her.

         “Maureen,” she had said sternly.  “I don’t know what tales you’ve been listening to, but you can’t tell me that they would allow that sort of thing to be on display where men can see them.  They don’t make things like that, they don’t need to and they wouldn’t sell, would they?  Not when you can just boil up some rags.”

         Maureen had to drag her mother down to the chemist to prove she was telling the truth and when she still refused to buy them, she threatened to get the money from her father.  That would have been too embarrassing and she eventually gave in.

         Maureen vowed there and then that if she ever had a daughter she would never have to suffer such humiliation, that she would have a mum who always kept up with the times.

         When she got home from the Family Planning, she was too embarrassed to tell anybody what had happened and she ended up telling Dave that they had agreed with her mother, and withdrawal was all there was;  that or French letters.

         They had already applied to the council for somewhere to live, and when Maureen found herself pregnant, it pushed them further up the list.

         That had been nearly thirteen years ago, and the pair had been really happy together especially when their beautiful daughter came along.

        

***

 

         The egg and chips, when it came, would not have tempted a starving man.  The eggs were almost hard and the chips were black outside, rock hard inside.  Mirielle managed the yolk of one egg, then pushed her plate aside.

         Upstairs she had a small cupboard in which she kept her own supply of fruit.  She took out a banana and some bread and made herself a banana sandwich.  It was not much of a meal, but it was preferable to hard egg and black chips. 

         She passed her parents’ bedroom on her way to the bathroom to wash up her cutlery and plate and could not help glancing in.  She didn’t understand how anyone could sleep with so little air and the powerful stench of sweat.

         Mrs Standish was a heavy woman, short and round, and her arms flapped about like those inflatable things one could use to help with swimming.  She rarely bathed and neither did Mr Standish.  His excuse was that he got dirty in his job, so no point; it would all come back the next day.  Mirielle was not really sure what he did, just that he was some kind of labourer.  She had no quarrel with that – he was a good provider.  He worked hard to give them both the best he could and she loved him.  She just wished he would clean himself up once in a while.

         Halfway down the stairs she heard his voice coming from the kitchen, where her mother was peeling more potatoes.

         “She’s thirteen next week,” he said.  “Where did that go, girl?” 

         He often called her mother ‘girl’, though why she couldn’t imagine.  Seemed a silly nickname for a grown woman.  Mirielle stopped on the stairs to listen.  She always eavesdropped on her parents’ conversations, hoping to hear some secrets revealed, but she never had.  No chance of anything so exciting.

         “You tell me, Dave,” Her mother replied.  “Don’t seem five minutes ago she was crawling round the floor, just trying to pull herself up on her little feet.”

         Mirielle grimaced at the idea of a young baby crawling around that filthy floor.  It was a wonder she hadn’t caught some awful disease, bubonic plague or something.

         “D’you remember the night she was born,” Dave asked.

         “Course I do!  The day Kennedy got shot.  I remember lying in bed, listening to it all on the radio.  We none of us could believe it, could we?”

         Here we go, thought Mirielle.  She had overheard this conversation before and on every occasion her own entry into the world could not be separated from the sudden and earth shattering demise of John Fitzgerald Kennedy.  Because of the connection, Mirielle had made a point of studying the president, so she was very knowledgeable on the subject.  She did not believe he was shot by Lee Harvey Oswald, it was not possible.

         She found it equally hard to believe that any midwife or doctor would have agreed to the birth of a fragile baby into that odorous bedroom.  But it wasn’t that particular bedroom.  They didn’t live here then, they lived further into London.  It didn’t matter; Mirielle could not imagine it had been any cleaner.

         She stayed where she was till she was sure they had finished talking.  She hoped, one day, to hear some confidences, something that would explain why she felt so different, so out of place with her own flesh and blood.

        

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