Song of songs, p.50
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       Song of Songs, p.50

           Beverley Hughesdon
 

  He looked pleased, but he spoke rather diffidently. ‘I always go to Bert’s, he’s very clean – but there’s tea rooms down t’other end of Blackburn Street, if you’d rather – they’re more classy like.’

  I did not want him diffident; a man such as he was would not be hesitant in the company of his little mill girl. ‘Whatever you think best, Ben – you decide.’ And as I spoke I felt myself sway against him.

  ‘Right, we’ll go to Bert’s.’ I clung to him submissively as we began to walk down the steep street.

  He pointed out the library: ‘Opened in 1908, copper dome and all, by Sir Andrew Carnegie ’isself.’ I gazed at the stone building, a pleasant enough design, but rather small and squat in comparison with what I was used to – but I was a mill girl today so I murmured, ‘It’s lovely, Ben,’ and he seemed satisfied.

  ‘I spend a fair amount of time there when I can – I like reading, ’specially politics and history.’

  I knew he did; Robbie had told me. I thrust the memory to the back of my mind and sealed it in – I was a mill girl today. I remembered the other mill girl, the real mill girl, who would take my place when the fairy godmother waved her magic wand – I had borrowed her Prince Charming for the day, but I felt sure she would not mind. As we sat over our cups of tea in the small cafe I asked, ‘Isn’t Emmie coming with us today, Ben?’

  He looked surprised. ‘No, Lady Helena – she’s still in weaving shed, hooter don’t go while half one. We’ll be well up on th’edge by then. She were right pleased with them clothes you sent – said I were to thank you again.’ He chuckled. ‘Prinking and preening herself for days, she were, an’ told me I mun take her to Co-op dance.’

  ‘Did you both enjoy it, Ben?’

  ‘No, I were lucky – I were booked two o’clock start that Saturday. I’m not a great one for dancing.’

  ‘Oh, poor Emmie!’

  He shrugged. ‘She’s a bonny lass – there’s plenty of others ready to partner her. If you’ve finished your tea we’ll get started – I’ve got a bit of summat here for our dinner, so we’ll not go hungry.’ He hefted his knapsack on to his shoulder and stood up. As he came behind me to pull back my chair I sensed the warmth of his body, and moved towards him – he was so solid and strong. Outside the cafe he held out his arm, confident now that I would take it; compliantly I did so.

  My chemise whispered as I walked up the sunlit street – the true unmistakable whisper of silk. I smiled to myself: I was a mill girl with a secret, a Cinderella in reverse – but midnight had yet to come, so I could enjoy my pretence a little longer. We threaded our way through the crowds and came out into a small square. Opposite stood an ornate tram shelter, with a pair of public conveniences under a small dome behind it, and I realized I had not thought to visit the cloakroom while still in Manchester. Normally I would have been embarrassed to make my needs known to this man, but today it was easy. I slid my hand from under his arm and glanced shyly at the green dome, then back at him. He flushed and stood still, and I crossed the square and went up the short path to the open door.

  As I came out of the cubicle the woman emerged from her cubbyhole with a clean towel. I washed my hands carefully, then patted my hair in the mirror. My face was flushed and excited, my eyes large and bright – I was prettier as a mill girl. I smiled at my reflection, and smiled again in greeting to the man waiting outside. I reached out for his arm once more and he clamped my hand firmly to his side.

  Almost at once the street began to rise steeply. ‘Best hang on to me tight, lass, in your fancy shoes.’ He had called me ‘lass’ – he was playing my game. In response I leant the full weight of my body on to his strong arm. A group of children playing in the street stopped as we passed and nudged each other, staring at us. I smiled to myself; they had not seen through my disguise – they thought I was a fine lady on the arm of a working man – but I knew better, for today.

  The last part of the street was so steep I was amazed that houses had been built either side of it – surely the floor of one family’s home would be halfway up the wall of the next? It did look so odd. ‘You’ll have to anchor me, Ben – or I’ll slide right back down again to the bottom.’

  ‘You’ll not do that, not when I’ve got hold of you. Stand still a minute.’ As I stood still he came round behind me and gripped my elbows so that he could propel me up. ‘Up you go then, lass.’ I leant back a little, teasing, so that he had to use all his strength, and he half-lifted me up the last steep cobbles to the place where the street became a rough track and veered off to the left. He stood behind me, panting, still holding my elbows – and for a moment I swayed back against his broad chest and felt his warm breath tickle my ear. Then he let go of me and came round to take my arm again.

  We walked on as the track swung up and round the curve of the hillside, and came to a place where the ground dropped sharply away beneath us. We were above the roofs of the last houses already, and he stopped so that we could look out over the valley. The drifts of smoke from the tall mill chimneys shifted and blurred and I exclaimed, ‘It makes me feel quite dizzy!’ I felt his arm drop mine and come instead quickly round my waist; he pulled me close against him.

  I wanted to giggle as we stood there looking down over Ainsclough – we must look just like a pair of lovers! I knew I should break away and put him in his place, but I did not want to – I liked the warm strong male feel of him, it reminded me of someone, then I remembered – it was Conan he reminded me of, my cousin who held me close – but Conan was in China and… My past loomed up and threatened me and I thrust it down and pulled away and cried, ‘Come along, Ben – you’re too slow – you said we’d walk on the tops, and we’re nowhere near the tops yet.’

  I began to run ahead and he followed me and came level, panting, and caught up my hand and drew it through his arm again. ‘You’d best hang on to me – track’s a bit rough for them dainty shoes of yours.’

  I laughed, for he did not know what I was really wearing – I tried to tell him – ‘I should have borrowed Emmie’s clogs, Ben.’

  He turned to smile at me. ‘Dress you in clogs and a shawl and you’d still walk like a duchess!’

  I wanted to correct him, to cry out, ‘No, like a marchioness – I should have walked like a marchioness’ – but I bit back the retort – I must not remember, not today – let me at least have today free of memories. And the fresh breeze came up and blew my memory away, and I was a mill girl once more.

  The track became steeper and the sun was warm, so he stopped and took off his jacket and slung it over his shoulder, then reached out to retrieve my hand. But this time he did not draw it through his arm; instead he clasped it with his warm work-hardened palm, and drew it towards his side. And as he pulled me close to him I caught the sharp tang of his sweat and breathed it in.

  Then suddenly we came out of the shelter of the lane and on to the open moor: all about us was high and light and empty. We paused, and I saw a thousand white flowers dancing in the breeze. I tugged him after me to the side of the track and bent down to look more closely – and saw that they were not flowers at all, but soft furry tufts. I picked one and held it soft against my cheek.

  He looked down at me and smiled. ‘That’s cotton grass – I always think spring’s come when cotton grass is showing. And look here.’ He squatted down beside me and parted the mat of green leaves. ‘They’re like little fruits, but they’re not, not yet.’

  I looked at the small round pink bells. ‘What are they, Ben?’

  ‘Whinberries – they make a lovely pie. When I was a youngster our mams’d send us out wi’ an old pail apiece to pick ’em. Took ages it did - and we ate as many as we picked. But me old dad were powerful fond of whinberry pie.’ He looked down at the small pink bells in silence for a moment, then he straightened up and pulled me to my feet. A skylark was singing high above us, and he pointed to the black dot it made against the blue sky; we watched it drop and there was silence – then another bird trilled out
and we began to walk on, round the brown-green slope of the moor.

  The path dropped down, into a sunken, rutted track, and I slowed as I picked my way over the tumbled stones. He eased his pace. ‘Take your time, Lady Helena.’ But when we turned the next corner the track dipped, and water filled it, right up to the earth bank on either side. We stopped and looked at it, and I glanced doubtfully down at my smart leather brogues. ‘Perhaps I could creep round the edge.’

  He twisted round to push his jacket under the flap of his pack, then he held his arms out to me. ‘You mun be joking, lass – there’s no edge. No, best idea is for me to carry you over – you don’t weigh owt.’

  For a moment I hesitated, then I remembered that I was a mill girl this afternoon and smiled my acceptance. His arm quickly encircled my waist. ‘Put your hand round me neck.’ His broad shoulders swung down as he gripped me firmly behind the knees and I was swinging up into the air; I clung to his shoulders and his eyes were very close to mine – I saw his mouth relax into a smile, then he was looking ahead as he strode forward carrying me easily and confidently over the water. His ear was very close to my eyes – I had never noticed before what well-shaped ears he had, delicately moulded and lying flat against his head. I felt warm and safe and drowsy. From long ago a loved voice told me: ‘Then he picked me up and carried me in, just like a baby.’ And like a baby I dropped my head on to his shoulder and closed my eyes. His boots were no longer splashing through water, his pace began to slow, then he came to a halt. I lay still in his arms. ‘I doubt I can carry you all way over tops.’ His voice was amused.

  I opened my eyes; I could see the sheen of sweat on his face, and feel his heart beating against mine. He was breathing heavily. Slowly I began to unclasp my hands as he eased me gently to the ground. As I turned, his hand brushed my thigh; he pulled it back as if he had been stung – then our fingers came together again and we set off, walking side by side.

  At the end of the sunken lane we began to climb up over the springy heather. He pulled me up the slope, and then it levelled off and the going became easier. He raised his free hand and pointed. ‘There’s a nice sheltered spot up along here. That’s where we’ll eat our butties.’

  ‘Our butties? What on earth are “butties”, Ben?’

  He glanced round at me. ‘Them’s same as what’ud be called sandwiches, by folks of your class.’

  ‘Of your class’ – my class, which was so very different from his – because I was not really a mill girl at all. And as a cloud blotted out the bright sunlight I went suddenly cold, and my silly charade blew away with the strong breeze. Whatever was I doing – walking over these rough, alien moors hand in hand with a working man? I who last weekend had been strolling on the smooth green turf of Hatton, hearing the sharp crack of the croquet mallet and listening to the high-pitched, confident voices of my own kind – while above me on the terrace the liveried footmen silently laid out the shining silver tea service.

  All at once I was terribly embarrassed, and I tugged hard to free the hand he held. He let me go, but turned to ask, ‘Is owt troubling you, Lady Helena?’

  As he spoke he moved closer and to fend him off I replied quickly, ‘I was remembering last weekend, at Hatton – Mother had guests to stay.’

  ‘Oh. Ah.’ He drew back and I slipped my hand in my pocket; he did not reach for it again. And as he trudged steadily on in silence my embarrassment faded; he had taken my hand merely to help me over the rougher ground – there had been nothing odd in that. Now I could walk more easily, he was keeping his distance, as was right and proper. I stole a glance at his face, and he looked no different from the way he always had done: Ben Holden, my wartime comrade, who expected nothing from me.

  My mind drifted back again, to my own world, and I found myself exclaiming bitterly, ‘I don’t like house parties, especially Saturday-to-Mondays. All those smart, clever people – I can never think of anything to say, and then they look at me as if they despise me.’

  ‘I reckon you say enough for me.’

  ‘Maybe, but you don’t expect much, do you, Ben?’ There was a pause before he replied. ‘No – happen I don’t.’ After a moment he added, ‘I didn’t think you’d be on train this morning.’

  I told him the truth. ‘I came because Mother had guests staying to luncheon – and I couldn’t face them – I had to get away.’

  He did not reply at first, then he said, ‘Well, you’re away now. We’re nearly at spot – it’s just over here.’ We came to the lip of a hollow; it was a small quarry, overgrown now, with just a few scattered boulders and a rock wall at one end. ‘Mind how you go.’ He held out his hand to help me, but I pretended not to see it, and he drew it back and clambered a short way down. Then he stopped, and looked back up at me as I picked my way over the loose stones, and I flushed under his intent gaze and lost my footing and almost fell; as I threw out my hand to balance myself he sprang back up and caught it hard in his. ‘You see – you can’t manage without me.’ His eyes looked full into mine and I teetered on my heels, and then swayed towards him. His face was very close now, and his fingers gripped so hard that they hurt. ‘Don’t worry lass, I’ll look after you.’ Then he seized my other hand in his, so that I could not break free, and backed carefully down over the stones, guiding me.

  There was a short drop before we reached the bottom and he stopped on the edge of it. ‘I’ll have to jump you down here.’ He let go of my hands and sprang down, then reached up again for me. Obediently I held out my hands to him, but he did not keep them in his; instead he lifted them to his warm neck. ‘Hang on to me, there’s a good lass.’ As I twined my fingers together I felt his own large hands grip my waist inside my jacket, then slide up under my arms and hold me so tightly I could scarcely breathe. For a moment we stood locked together, then he swung me down to the springy turf at the bottom. But as he took his hands away they brushed my breasts and I broke free from him and ran to the rock face and stood with my back pressed against it, watching him.

  He did not look at me as he swung his knapsack off his shoulders and set it down on one of the flat rocks. I watched him as he began to roll up his shirtsleeves, and saw the brown shadow of the hairs on his forearms, clear in the bright sunlight. I watched the thin cloth of his waistcoat pull tight over the strong muscles in his back as he bent over the knapsack and began to delve into it. My legs trembled, and my body shivered, and he looked up at me and said, ‘Best sit down in sun, lass, while I unpack.’ He gestured to a boulder fully in the warm sun. ‘That’n ’ll do. Sit yourself down there.’ He did not raise his voice but he was sure and confident, and I resented his power over me even as my unsteady legs obeyed him.

  He was a very methodical unpacker. First he unfolded a rug and shook it out on a flat piece of grass near the rock face; next he spread out an old newspaper, and then he began to position each item he took out carefully on it: one knife, two enamel mugs, butter and cheese wrapped in greaseproof, and a loaf of bread. He was just as precise in his movements as the footmen at Hatton. And now I saw my weapon and so I pitched my voice very high and mocking and exclaimed, ‘Why, Ben, you’d make a perfect footman – serving tea on the terrace!’

  His face went a dull red and I saw he was angry. He said flatly, ‘It’s not a job as ever appealed to me – I’m a skilled man meself,’ and as he glowered at me I became nervous, and anxious to propitiate him.

  I leant forward and said quickly, ‘Oh, don’t take it amiss, Ben. Why, when I was a child I thought the world of our nursery footman – Jem was my hero.’ He still looked at me, his face angry, so I explained to him: ‘That governess – the French governess who locked me up with Mother’s furs – it was Jem who rescued me, and he threw the necktie on the floor and stamped on it, right on its head – and killed it for me.’

  He asked slowly, ‘And what happened to this Jem – this footman?’ He stumbled over the last word, as if it hurt him to say it. ‘Is he still at your house?’

  I turned my head and
looked up to the open moors. ‘He went away, to the South African War – he was a reservist, you see – and he didn’t come back.’ My voice dropped as I remembered Ena, throwing her white apron up over her head as she fell on her knees beside the coal bucket. ‘He died of enteric. Our nursemaid loved him, and she cried and cried.’

  He said softly, ‘Poor little lass,’ and for a moment I thought he meant me.

  When he had finished laying out his tea table, he sat back on the rug and ordered, ‘Come here, lass, and sit on rug by me.’

  Slowly I stood up and came towards him; I was breathing too quickly, as the strength of his body drew me to him – but I made myself sit on the very edge of the rug. But then he said, ‘You’re nearly off rug – come closer.’ And he sat quite still while I very slowly inched towards him, nearer and nearer, until I touched his bare arm. I felt the warmth of him and knew I should move away – but even as my mind told me to do that so my body had moved again, until my shoulder pressed against his. ‘That’s better, lass – we’ll keep each other warm, like.’ But it was already very warm in the bottom of the small quarry, and I could see the sweat glistening on his face. ‘You’re breathing so fast lass, you mun be thirsty – here, see what I’ve got for you.’ He pulled the knapsack to him and reached inside it. I heard the chink of glass and watched as he took out two bottles – one large and dark brown, the other smaller and a pale green. He bent forward and set them on the newspaper beside us. ‘There, you’ve got a choice.’ He flicked the green bottle with his fingertip. ‘This one’s ginger pop – Emmie likes that, she’s not much more’n a babby, see – but here’ – and his hand clasped the neck of the larger brown bottle – ‘I brought some beer – it’s more thirst-quenching like – an’ I reckoned with you being a grown woman, you might fancy a try of it. But if you want the babby’s drink –’

  And his blue-grey eyes dared me, so that I reached forward recklessly and took the brown bottle from his hand, saying, ‘I’ll try the beer, Ben – it’ll make a change for me.’

 

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