Vain Shadow
Author: Steven Wyatt

Chapter 8



Florrie Swindells said you couldn’t get pregnant the first time. She hadn’t, so that proved it.

Grandma Oldham would know. Grandma Oldham knew everything.

She smoothed Ruth’s hair back with delicate blue fingers, led her in, sat her down and poured strong tea from the pot on the hob. The cluttered cottage held the smell of earth, paraffin, herbs and hotpot. The cats watched from their roosts around the room.

Grandma Oldham sat down opposite Ruth, wrapped in her grey shawl, a little ivory saint-woman, black eyes liquid with grave intelligence. She knew there was a question coming, probably to do with that young man, the widow’s son. He had a hard road to travel, that one, and times when he would lose himself.

The old woman lit her clay pipe with a spill, blew out a cloud of aromatic smoke, making the cats blink, smiled at her granddaughter and waited in the lamplight.

‘How have you been?’ asked Ruth.

‘Glad to see spring.’ Her voice had the texture of millstone grit. ‘When you’re young the summers seem to last for ever; when you’re old it’s the winters that seem to last for ever. I’m well. How are you?’

‘Well in myself, thank you, but this war…’

‘This war will break the heart of the world.’

‘Harry’s gone and joined up, and his best pal Tolly – Bartholomew Tolman – ’

‘I know. The one you’re sweet on.’

‘– yes, Tolly, he’s going with him, any time now, and…I’m just so worried…’

Ruth had been bringing her troubles to her grandmother since before her mother died, and many times since then. They had grown indissolubly close over the years. The old woman had a clean and compact wisdom that had little to do with sympathy, and a non-judgmental frankness that belonged to an earlier, easier age. She could not take pain away, but she had a way of putting it in its place.

‘Yes, you’re worried,’ she said. ‘Can you stop them going?’

‘No, of course not.’

‘Well then.’

‘But – ’

‘It’s out of your hands, out of anyone’s hands. The two boys you love are going to war like all the men, and you can’t stop them. You’re not the only one. Do you pray?’

‘All the time.’

‘Then you are doing everything in your power. Trust. Let God worry about it.’

Grandma Oldham often talked about God, yet Ruth had never seen her in church. She had her own way of seeing it, something more to do with nature, with plants and herbs and the seasons. As a young girl Ruth had had a wart on her finger – ring finger, left hand – and Grandma Oldham had ‘bought’ it from her for a penny. Her stepmother had scoffed but the wart had disappeared.

‘I know,’ said Ruth, ‘but it’s so hard.’

‘Yes, girl. It’s hard.’

The coal fire ticked and settled, the cats dozed, the warm room dreamed.

‘So,’ said Grandma Oldham. ‘You want to bed this Tolly, this sweetheart of yours, before he goes.’


‘You want to know if it’s the right thing – or no, you know it’s the right thing, you just want to hear me say it.’

‘I…well, yes. How do you know?’

The dark eyes glinted. ‘Do you want his child?’

‘No! I mean yes, but…’

‘But not yet. A good thing, I think. You’re sure about him? Sure enough to be his wife?’

‘Yes. Yes, I’m sure.’

Sure? Her very blood ached for Tolly. Since he’d gone and joined up…they’d had time before, all the time in the world, but now…

‘He could be killed,’ said Grandma Oldham.

‘That’s why, that’s one of the reasons –’

‘You don’t have to give me your reasons. I remember how it was with your grandfather. When was your last time?’

‘My last time?’

‘Your last blood.’

‘Oh that, it’s happening now, started yesterday.’

‘Good. Bed him within the week. He won’t get you with child in the first week after your blood. Bring him here.’


‘Yes here. I’ll leave you alone. Let him think the old woman is asleep upstairs. You’re virgin?’

‘Of course.’

‘Do you know what will happen? What a man and woman do together?’

‘Yes.’ From Florrie Swindells, who else?

‘Don’t expect too much for yourself this first time. You will hear that love is give and take, but it isn’t. Love is all giving, especially for a woman.’

‘Mrs Pankhurst says – ’

‘I know what Mrs Pankhurst says. The Suffragettes are right; the law is wrong. We should change the law. But we should never make the mistake of trying to change men. If women try to take over from men we’ll lose them, we will lose their protection. They will turn back into boys.

‘In the story of the frog and the princess – remember? – it’s the girl’s kiss that turns the frog into a prince. Without the princess’s kiss the frog would remain a frog, trapped in the witch’s spell, and then you would have the story of the forever-disappointed princess, waiting by the pond for the frog to change by himself, to become a prince without her. It will never happen. Men need us to become what they can be.’

‘Grandma…thank you.’

‘God bless you, love. To tell you what you came to hear, yes you’re doing the right thing. Follow God and your heart and you’ll never be far from doing the right thing. Give, give and give again. Now. More tea? Shall we make toast on the fire? There are things I need to tell you.’



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