Song of songs, p.76
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       Song of Songs, p.76

           Beverley Hughesdon
 

  He shouted, ‘I never realized!’ Then he reached for his discarded book, and began leafing through it; he found the page he was looking for and held it under my nose: ‘Look, lass – it says, here, under “Signs of Pregnancy”, that one sign is that you’re moist and soft and pulsating down below.’ I giggled again, then realizing I was very tired, I turned over on my back, pushed the sheets down and parted my legs. ‘Ben, I’m going to sleep now – you have a good look and tell me all about it in the morning.’ I closed my eyes and fell instantly asleep.

  As we sat in the parlour the following evening Ben cleared his throat and announced, ‘It’s time you thought about going to see doctor.’

  I widened my eyes. ‘But Ben – you’ve got your book –’

  ‘Don’t be daft, lass – I’m serious. What I thought was – well, I’ve been making some inquiries and there’s a good doctor down end of Bolton Road – a lady doctor.’

  My whole body went rigid. ‘Ben Holden – what are you implying?’ His face reddened; I jumped to my feet and ran at him. ‘How dare you, how dare you!’

  ‘Lass – I –’ He dodged behind the armchair; I felt fury sweep over me and raised my hand to strike – but he caught hold of me and held me away from him. ‘Look, lass – I’m sorry – I should have explained – it’s not that I think you – I mean, I know it ’ud be different with a doctor… It’s me, see – reading that book, thinking about another man…

  ‘A doctor, Ben!’

  ‘I don’t care – I don’t want any man handling you like that – ’cept me.’

  My anger drained away as I remembered last summer, and my miscarriage. ‘It’s too late, Ben – I was examined before, when I, when I fell.’ I shuddered.

  He was watching me. ‘And you didn’t like it much, either – did you?’

  ‘No, no I didn’t.’ I drew a deep breath then surrendered. ‘All right, Ben – I’ll go to your lady doctor. I think I’d prefer to.’

  He sat down, rather shamefaced. ‘I know I’m like one of those Arab sheiks, with his harem…’

  I smiled a little. ‘Don’t you dare bring home a harem, Ben Holden.’

  He threw back his head and laughed. ‘I wouldn’t have energy for it, lass – it takes me all me time to keep you served.’ My face was on fire as I picked up my score again.

  I went to the woman doctor; her waiting room walls were hung with photographs of women in khaki uniform and high riding boots, of others in nurses’ veils, and men lying in bed outside tents.

  Dr Hartley was tall and middle-aged, with pepper-and-salt hair drawn severely back into a bun, and a strong pleasant face. She shook my hand briskly. ‘Now what can I do for you, my dear?’

  I told her, ‘I’m pregnant.’

  She crossed to the sink and began to wash her hands, smiling at me over her shoulder. ‘You seem very sure.’

  I smiled back; I liked her. ‘I am – my husband has bought a midwifery textbook – he’s checked for all the symptoms.’

  She laughed outright. ‘But he doesn’t feel quite up to handling the delivery, is that it?’

  ‘That’s right.’ We laughed together.

  She dried her hands. ‘Pop next door and empty your bladder, then get undressed – the couch is behind the screen.’ She questioned me as her confident fingers carried out their examination. When she had finished she smiled. ‘Mm – your husband’s right – not much doubt there. Your first, I take it?’

  ‘I miscarried last year – twins – I wasn’t very well – and I fell in the street.’

  ‘You seem in very good shape this time – just be sensible and make sure you get enough rest if you feel tired. Up you get, then.’

  When I came and sat down by her desk she asked, ‘What’s brought you to Ainsclough?’

  ‘I live here.’

  She smiled. ‘But you haven’t always, have you?’ Then, without waiting for an answer she picked up her pen. ‘Now let me have your name.’

  ‘Lady Helena Holden.’

  She glanced up, intent. ‘I heard about you – it was in the paper: “Local war hero weds earl’s daughter” – just a paragraph.’ I had not known. She continued, ‘It said you met your husband while you were nursing – where were you nursing, Lady Helena?’

  I told her, and she listened, her face alight with interest. ‘We must have a good chat, you and I compare notes. You see I was in Serbia myself, with Dr Inglis’ team. The War Office wouldn’t touch women doctors, of course – not at the start – they were glad enough later, but most of us had found something more exciting to do by then. I didn’t do much obstetrics out there, of course – only the occasional peasant woman, and I sorted out a goat, once! But I did plenty before I went and I do it now, so I’ll book you in, if you want.’

  ‘Yes, please do.’

  ‘About the second week in January, I think. There’s quite a good nursing home –’

  ‘No – no, I want to be delivered at home, in our own bed.’

  I flushed as I finished, and she said, shrewdly and bluntly, ‘Take it out where it went in, eh?’

  I smiled. ‘Yes.’

  ‘Well, it’s the tradition of your class. Come and see me every month, then – or sooner if you’re worried about anything. I work with a midwife, so I’ll send her round to see you nearer the confinement.’

  Ben was pleased when he heard my report. ‘And she were in the Serbian campaign. I wonder if she were in Retreat? I’ll have to ask her – different sort of fighting it were out there – it’ll be interesting to have a chat.’

  Chapter Seven

  I was glad I had been to see Dr Hartley; I trusted her: she would deliver my son safely when the time came. Ben teased me when I talked of the child as a ‘he’. ‘It might be a girl, lass – then what’ll you do, send it back?’

  I laughed and shook my head. ‘It’s a boy, Ben – I know it is.’

  Then he had a long chat with Florrie Henshaw and came back to tell me he thought it would be a boy, too. ‘Florrie says women who put it all on front are generally carrying lads, and there’s no doubt where you’re putting it, sweetheart – from back no one could tell you’re expecting. Mind, your belly only really shows when you’re undressed – but those little breasts o’ yours…’ He smiled and pulled me on to his lap.

  The next day was Sunday; we sat drowsily in the parlour after lunch pretending to read as we dozed a little. Then Ben stood up and shook himself. ‘Time I made a pot of tea to wake us up.’

  While he was out in the kitchen there was a rat-tat-tat at the door. ‘I’ll go, Ben.’ I pulled myself up.

  Outside on the step stood Barnes, resplendent in uniform. ‘Are you at home my lady? Lady Pickering and Mr Finlay have driven over.’

  ‘Yes – yes, of course I am, Barnes.’

  He sprang back to the Delaunay-Belleville and swung the door open, and my mother stepped gracefully out. Conan emerged quickly from the other side. ‘Hello, Hellie – we thought we’d have a run out and see if you were in.’

  Ben came through from the back, struggling into his jacket. Mother extended two gloved fingertips; he seized her whole hand and shook it vigorously – her eyes narrowed. Conan slapped Ben on the shoulder. ‘Good to see you, old man – and how’s little Hellie?’ He swung round to me – and his face stilled. Then he said, in a voice that was not quite steady, ‘You’re blooming, Helena, aren’t you? Blooming.’ It was one of my good times. I saw his gaze flick down to my swelling breasts, and on to my full hips – my belly was barely curved yet, my waist still slim, but the rest of my body was ripening. He leant forward and took my hand. ‘I must give you a cousinly kiss.’ He pressed his lips to my cheek, but as he drew back they brushed my mouth – and I could scarcely stop myself from moving towards him. Conan’s blue eyes rested on mine as he said, ‘She’s just like a luscious ripe peach, eh, Aunt Ria? Ainsclough seems to suit her.’

  My mother selected the best armchair and arranged herself elegantly on it before asking, ‘Are you with child, He
lena?’

  ‘Yes, Mother.’

  Her glance swung up to Ben, standing beside me; it swept over his broad shoulders and down to his hips – appraising him. Ben said quickly, ‘I were just putting kettle on – I’ll get back to it.’ He went out to the kitchen.

  Conan began to chat, easily, casually – but his gaze never left me. He broke off from what he was saying and turned to Mother. ‘I can’t get over it – I haven’t seen her since she was in the nursing home, and now she seems so well. She’s looks beautiful, doesn’t she, Aunt Ria?’

  My mother nodded grudgingly. ‘Some women are suited to pregnancy – like cows.’

  As my face flushed Conan gave a great shout of laughter and slapped my mother’s hand – however did he dare? She only smiled at him indulgently.

  Ben came back with the tray and set it in front of me; I poured while Conan and Ben talked together. I saw my mother studying Ben – she began to unbend slightly, to address the odd remark directly to him. I glanced sideways at my husband and saw what my mother saw: a man who had behaved in a most inconvenient and annoying fashion, but who had broad shoulders and a strong, virile body – for that, much could be forgiven him. Besides, Mother was a pragmatist; I was in Ainsclough and it was clear I was going to stay here.

  She began to speak of Letty: ‘Immured in that nunnery of a women’s college – her fingers quite stained with chemicals – seeming to spend all her time in laboratories or libraries – I don’t understand her at all, she doesn’t seem like a daughter of mine.’ She sighed and glanced at Ben, and I thought, oh yes – she understands me though, I am a daughter of hers. The others were talking so I picked up the tea pot and went to refill it in the kitchen. As I put down the kettle I heard the latch click behind me; Conan slipped in and closed the door softly after him. We stood looking at each other. His blue eyes passed slowly over me, up and down – then up again to my swelling breasts; my body tingled. He gave a slightly unsteady laugh. ‘That blouse is too small for you, Helena.’

  ‘I know,’ and as I took a deep breath I felt the fine silk strain.

  He moved towards me a step. ‘God, Helena – you look lovely – I’ve never seen you so beautiful – you’ve always had something about you, but now it’s…’ He moved another step forward and I felt myself sway towards him – then the door swung suddenly open and Ben loomed dark behind us.

  ‘Do you need any help, Helena?’

  Conan said hastily, ‘I don’t think so, old man – I came out to offer myself. I’ll leave you to it.’

  Ben came forward and took the full tea pot from me. ‘Button up your jacket, Helena.’

  ‘But it’s too hot –’

  ‘Do as I say.’ I buttoned my jacket, though it was too tight and hurt my breasts.

  Back in the parlour Conan and Ben continued to chat together, my mother throwing in the odd word – but I sat silent, feeling the familiar sickness rise in my belly, and my head began to throb. I was glad when Mother stood up to leave – I felt quite ill now.

  Ben came back in as the motor purred off down the street. ‘Not feeling too good, lass?’

  ‘No – I feel rather queasy.’

  His heavy hand came down on my shoulder; his fingers tightened. ‘Conan couldn’t take his eyes off you.’

  I dared not look up at his face. ‘Conan – Conan likes women.’

  ‘Aye – and he likes you more’an all the others. But you’re my wife, Helena – remember that.’ His fingers were biting so deeply into my shoulder now, they were hurting me.

  My voice was no more than a whisper. ‘Yes, Ben. But – I –’ I tore myself away from his grasp and lurched as quickly as I could out into the scullery – just in time to heave my lunch into the sink. He did not come near me, though he pushed a chair forward for me to collapse on to when I had finished.

  He stood watching me as I wiped my mouth, still gagging a little, then he said, ‘Aye, likely you won’t forget I’m your husband, way things are with you now – but remember, Helena, I’m a jealous man. I were looking at your ma this afternoon and I thought that if I’d been your pa I’d have put my lady across my knee and tanned the backside off her. She wouldn’t have played tricks with me again.’ He swung round and slammed the door behind him.

  Alone in the scullery I began to giggle weakly at the thought of my mother’s expression if she had heard what Ben had said. But back in the front room I defended her. ‘Remember, Ben, that it’s six of one and half a dozen of the other. Papa – ’

  He put down his paper and his eyes were steady, holding mine. ‘Lass, I’ve played fair with you, and I always will – will you promise to do the same with me?’

  ‘Yes, Ben – I will.’ My stomach lurched again.

  He smiled a little. ‘“In sickness and in health” – and, poor lass, it looks as if you’re one with sickness at present. I’ll go and fetch pail.’

  But as I lay beside my sleeping husband in bed that night I remembered the way Conan’s blue eyes had looked at me in the kitchen; I supposed I was glad I was not married to him, but for a moment I wished – oh, how I wished – that they had left us together in the maze that evening when we were young and innocent and carefree. Then I turned over on my side and felt the tenderness of my swollen breasts – and thought that perhaps it was as well they had not.

  Guy’s letter came as usual, from Canada. He had written to me faithfully every month since he had left, although I had often failed to answer, especially last year. This time he wrote that he and Pansy were coming home, for a long leave, in the autumn.

  I ran to Ben as soon as he came in from work. ‘Guy – Guy’s coming home, in October!’

  He looked at my excited face, before asking, ‘Do you want to go and stay for a bit, while he’s here?’

  I hesitated. ‘I don’t want to leave you, Ben – not for long.’

  ‘I’ll manage, with Mary coming in.’

  I dropped my eyes. ‘It’s not just that, Ben – I’ll miss you.’

  ‘Aye – and I’ll miss you, too – but you want to see your brother. Look, I’m due for me week’s holiday in September; I were thinking about two of us going to Yorkshire, to stay at a farm – but I daresay someone’ll swap with me, then we could go to Hatton together – if you want me there, that is.’

  ‘Yes, yes, I do, Ben.’

  ‘Then that’s settled – as long as your ma says yes.’

  I laughed. ‘She will – Papa does put his foot down occasionally.’

  Ben grinned. ‘You could have fooled me – I’ll get me bath.’

  Ben came with me the next time I went to see Dr Hartley, as he had said he would. They got on well, and she invited us both to supper one evening the following week. As we sat over our meal we talked of Germany – she had studied in Berlin before the war, and she knew Munich, too. After the maid had cleared the table its polished top was spread with maps as she and Ben thrashed out the Serbian campaigns. She brought out her box of photographs and we matched them to place and time. Several of them were of a sweet-faced Serbian officer – an older man with badges of rank on his uniform. He smiled so trustingly at the camera that I exclaimed, ‘he looks too gentle to be a soldier.’

  Dr Hartley took the photo from me and held it very delicately in her large, capable hands, gazing at the pictured face. Then she said, ‘yes – he was. But he did his duty and died for it.’ As she looked up at me I flinched from the naked loss in her eyes; then she put the photograph down, saying, ‘But it’s not such a bad life, delivering other women’s babies.’ She turned back to the maps.

  I dropped suddenly asleep in my chair, awakening to hear her and Ben discussing pregnancy fatigue. Ben reached out and touched my hand. ‘Why don’t you sing to the doctor, Helena – mebbe some of your German songs?’ So I sang German Lieder to an English doctor who had loved a Serbian officer and lost him to the Bulgarian guns – in that greatest of all wars. Thank God we would never have to fight such a war again.

  The performance of the Messi
ah was coming nearer and I was still having to run very frequently out to the closet; I was rather worried but Ben told me there would be no problem, since during the fourth month my womb would rise up into my abdomen and so stop pressing on my bladder. He also insisted that my morning sickness would shortly disappear, and when it did I felt slightly piqued – after all, I was the one who was carrying the child. But I was relieved – I did so want to sing in Ainsclough again.

  Madame Goldman had coached me thoroughly, so now I went along to the Methodist church to practise with the organist and choir. The choirmaster asked me if I would give some advice to the soprano soloist; her voice was a little weak for the high-galleried chapel. She came forward nervously to sing for me; she was a pretty nineteen-year-old. Her voice was pleasant but occasionally flat, and she needed help with her breathing, so I suggested she come up to Royds Street in the evenings after work. I practised with her at the piano and she was admiring and grateful; I began to feel like an elder sister.

  If he was at home Ben would sit listening to us, and after she had gone one day I said, ‘Olive’s a very pretty girl, isn’t she, Ben?’

  He looked at me and smiled. ‘Aye, I suppose she is – but when you’re in room I’ve not got eyes for any other woman.’

  I blushed and looked down at ray thickening waistline. ‘But I’m getting fat, Ben.’

  ‘Aye, you are – with my child. I like looking at that too,’ he added simply.

  A week before the Messiah I was lifting a steak pie out of the oven when I felt a fluttering in my belly; I stilled, crouched before the open oven door. Ben jumped up. ‘What’s matter, lass?’

  As he took the dish from my hands and helped me up I whispered, ‘He’s moving – I felt him moving!’ and began to cry. Ben pulled me to him and kissed my wet cheeks, murmuring words of love.

  In the front room later he got out his book. ‘You’re right on target for quickening, lass – but it don’t say anything about crying when it happens.’ He grinned at me and I hauled myself off the sofa and went to climb on his lap. Dropping the book, he put his arms round me and hugged me tight. ‘Reckon I’ll concentrate on practical side for a while.’ He unbuttoned my blouse and began to unfasten my bodice. I leant against him as his warm hands explored my body, and when he put his lips to mine I opened my mouth for him. He drew back a moment. ‘You’ll tell me when you don’t want it any more, won’t you, lass?’ In answer I began to undo his shirt buttons.

 

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