Vain Shadow
Author: Steven Wyatt

Chapter 2
Cock Robin

He had his eyes, that was the worst and best of it, his eyes, and that way of turning his head to you, not all the way, not turning to you full-faced but holding a little something back, something in the angle of his head kept back while the eyes, his eyes, came the last bit of the distance to look at you, looking at you and not looking at you. It wasn’t something he could have picked up from him; surely, he was only five when…

Twelve years ago. Twelve years, and sometimes it felt like today, this minute, when she saw those eyes, his and his, there in the same person.

They were a lot the same. The music for one thing, the music was from his father. He loved a good sing-song did Bert, spending nearly all his pay-off that time on that piano, not caring about the money, and the pair of them, father and son, sitting there on the stool, laughing their heads off, Bartholomew no more than three, not even that, banging on the piano, laughing, and then his dad getting hold of his little fingers and putting them down on the keys to make a little tune – Frère Jacques – nice tune – and Bartholomew frowning, suddenly serious and interested, putting his head on one side like a little cock robin, listening – just like a little robin redbreast on the back gate! – listening to the tune him and his dad were making on that piano. What a job they’d had to move it from the old house, after.

Then there were other parts that definitely weren’t his father’s, the bits he had picked up from her and, worse luck, his grandfather. That temper, sometimes. Lord Almighty, look out for that! Not often. Just sometimes. That was hers, she had to admit. He had learned how to hide from his grandfather, learned that way of going into himself, going somewhere you couldn’t follow, dreaming, dreaming…

Oh, it was better there’d been a man around the house rather than none, even his grandfather, for the discipline, a lad needed a man’s discipline, but you could take that too far. And it needed to be constant, and fair, not laughing and letting the boy run around one day and then clattering him the next for making a noise on the piano. The drink, that was. But it had left Bartholomew with that way of going into himself and holding something back, or something in, far away in another place. Look at him now, holding something back.

‘Bartholomew,’ said his mother. ‘How was church?’ She was a Methodist and did not attend All Saints.

‘Holy Joe was sermonising about the war,’ said Tolly, taking a seat by the range, though not his grandfather’s seat – not that the old man would be home yet, not until closing time, unless his money ran out – and sitting back but not right back. ‘I was thinking about what he was saying and didn’t come in on time. He gave me such a look.’

‘What was he saying?’

‘Oh about duty and sacrifice, that sort of thing.’

‘Aye, we’ll see some sacrificing before this lot’s done. Mather’s already put a penny on a pound of butter. Business as usual for him all right. I remember South Africa. What did you do after?’

‘Walked along the cut with Harry Lafford and his sister.’

‘Eunice?’

‘No, Ruth, Eunice is in service in Harrogate, with that painter feller, what’s-his-name.’

‘Ruth Lafford? From the florist’s?’

‘Yes…granddad not back yet?’

Aye and he might well change the subject away from Ruth Lafford, asking about his granddad, listen to him. Miranda Lockwood had tipped her the wink about Ruth Lafford. Pretty little thing, granted, and money in the family – always money in baking, people had to have bread – but they were too young. She’d waited until she was eighteen to marry Bert and he’d been twenty, going on twenty-one. Was that what he was holding back? Him and the baker’s daughter? The whole town knew, and half of Haughton too.

‘No, your grandfather’s not back yet,’ she said. ‘He’s been at the haymaking up at Clegg’s. They’re all in there.’ There being her word for the Waggon and Horses.

The unseen presence of  Tolly’s grandfather – his mother’s father, George Branch – ‘Leafy’ Branch to his cronies in the Waggon – stole into the pause between them and settled into his cracked old chair, giving off a stale malevolence. He stilled their talk as if he were physically present, mother and son drifting into their own thoughts.

A memory came to Tolly. Granddad one night, back from the Waggon, bumping into things, jeering: ‘Cap’n are ye sleeping down below?’ to the picture of Tolly’s father on the piano in the front parlour, and his mother going white, her eyes turning cold and mean and glittery, slamming down her sewing and shouting at granddad to show respect in front of the boy – meaning him, Tolly – he didn’t really understand what it was all about – and granddad saying it was only a joke, couldn’t she take a joke, but she was screaming, shouting the house down, and granddad was shouting back at her.

And Tolly started crying, so he got a belt from granddad for that and sent to bed. And he was upstairs, in his mum’s bed – he was still sleeping with his mum then – with this racket going on downstairs with yelling and shouting and things breaking, and then there was one almighty slap and his mother came sobbing up the stairs and got into bed with him, shaking, holding him, and they were both crying. And in the morning they had matching shiners. The same eye, the left one.

         Tolly’s mother stirred, folded up her sewing and pushed it into the peg bag on the arm of the chair.

‘Well,’ she said, ‘I’ll be going up. There’s a bit of Lancashire and some bread in the pantry saved for you, unless you want me to – ’

‘No, that’ll do me thanks’ – now – ‘I…mum…I was talking with Harry. About joining up.’

There. He’d promised Harry he’d say it and he’d said it. His mother froze in the act of standing up, blue-veined hands clenched on the arms of the chair. She let herself back down. So this was what he had been holding back.

‘Joining up? Joining what up?’

‘You know, the Army. Joining the Army.’

She seemed to shrink. A bleakness came into her eyes. They were all talking about joining up. They were all going barmy about this Belgian business, this Kaiser. That Jack Witham…he’d come back from South Africa with his arm all smashed and bent and good for nothing, and he’d not moved from the back tap of the Black Horse from that day to this, never mind his poor mother. A son of hers, in the Army.

‘You and Harry Lafford, joining the Army?’ Her voice was flat, prefacing refusal. Tolly knew the tone.

‘No. You’re too young, any road, they won’t have you.’

‘They will! Jimmy Moorhouse is going, Johnny Babbitt, they took them. Everybody’s going. And…’ he tried to soften it, at bay before his mother’s eyes, ‘it won’t be for long. We have to put this business to rights, mum, do our duty. And you’ll have my pay.’

‘A shilling a day? Much good that’ll do.’ The pension from the seamen’s union barely covered the rent, and the few bob granddad made from his mending and his odd jobs and working up at Clegg’s rarely made it beyond the Waggon. It wouldn’t tonight. She remained silent, her mouth tight.

Tolly bolstered himself with bravura, once more leading the Tommies, the guns firing, the flag flying. Harry would be beside him, Ruth waiting back in Millbridge. And such a ripping adventure! In Belgium, probably France too. Tolly had never been further than Manchester, that time when…

‘Dad would have wanted me to go,’ he said. His heart thumped.

She gave him a look that said: oh, Tolly. Unfair. Not your father, not that.

The same eyes.

He knew he’d won.

 

 

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