Vain Shadow
Author: Steven Wyatt

Chapter 9
As If We Were Wed

Tolly’s mother had grown reluctant to let him out of her sight, as if she was feeding on his presence before it was taken away from her. She wanted to know where he was going, what he was doing and who with. Near-tears reddened her eyes. Her expression had become pained and desperate.

At the same time she seemed a little frightened of him, especially since Tolly’s punishment of her father, though that did not inhibit her chiding. Leafy had faded into a broken ghost, drinking for oblivion rather than bravado, his once-whipcrack voice an eroded croak.

Army training had been the first and only time Tolly had lived away from home. In his absence the house on Manchester Road, Millbridge itself, seemed to have shrunk. Time had turned into waiting, into wanting to be away on the great adventure, and the town was too small. Salt Street, from being the busy and intimidating thoroughfare of his boyhood, had dwindled into a backdrop, into mere familiarity. He knew every façade, every name over every business, every advertising sign. He could have found his way blindfolded from the smell of each shop – the sawdusted blood and offal of the butchers, the cheese and bacon tang of the grocers, the funereal sweetness of the florists where Ruth worked.

She had asked him to meet her there after they had shut the shop on early closing day, a cool, washed March Wednesday. His mother wanted to know how long he would be, and what about his tea, and perhaps it was time him and the baker’s daughter ought to start deciding what was what, and if that Ernie Babb at the Black Horse wanted him to play the piano every night he might slip him a few bob for it – why, even the Methodists could manage a shilling a wedding, aye, when they charged the family two bob. Some folk always wanted summat for nowt. What time was he coming home?

‘Not too late,’ hedged Tolly.

 

He went to meet Ruth wearing his own clothes. She did not like what she called the queer, sour smell of khaki.  Walking along Salt Street he ignored the pointed stares of a matched pair of plume-hatted matrons emerging from Lockwood’s, the kind Harry called Cream Tea Kitcheners. Harry knew where they could put their white feathers, except they’d probably enjoy it. Must be a lot of bare-arsed geese about. An aged news vendor – all the boys had disappeared – was shouting, as he was always shouting: ‘Heavy German losses!’

Ruth came out of Threlfall’s, her face shining from a back kitchen cold water wash. She took Tolly’s arm. There was a decisive air about her. ‘Let’s go for a walk in the park,’ she said.

Victoria Park was laid out on the site of the town’s long-gone tanneries between the market place and the Catholic school. Half a dozen acres, purchased and donated by a philanthropic cabal of waistcoated mill owners on the occasion of the Diamond Jubilee, had been imprisoned in tall iron railings and drilled into a grid of rectangular flower beds confined within strips of inviolable grass.

The focal point was the bandstand, the only round thing in the park under its mastoid dome of pigeon-streaked lead. On Whit Mondays the East Lancs and North Cheshire District brass band competition was held there amid a shrieking maelstrom of children doing their best to ruin the new clothes bought for them for the Whit Walks. It was whispered that most of the town’s illegitimate babies were conceived in Victoria Park during Wakes Week in August.

The daffodils were out. The day was on the cusp between winter and spring, the sun high enough to bring warmth and the wind cold enough to bring shivers, though between them they were doing a good job of drying out the ground after the wet winter.

Tolly and Ruth entered the park from the market side through the confidently ornate gates, VR-1897 picked out in gold in the ironwork, and sat on one of the green-painted benches. On the other side of the bandstand a group of blue-clad war convalescents in bath chairs took the air, attended by VAD girls.

Tolly looked at the casualties. Would he end up like that? Ruth looked at the nurses and wondered whether that might be more useful work than making up bridesmaids’ bouquets. There had been plenty of those to do with all the rushed weddings – some more rushed than others.

‘Grandma Oldham has invited us over for tea,’ she said. ‘You don’t have to run off, do you?’

‘No, I wish I did – I mean, I don’t mean that, but…you know. This waiting about.’

The news in the papers from Neuve Chapelle was exciting. They had taken the town, a ‘significant strategic objective’, in less than an hour. At this rate it would all be over before he and Harry could get to France.

‘And I want you here,’ said Ruth, turning towards him, ‘but you know that and I’m not going to go on about it.’ She had seen how uncomfortable he became, pulled one way and the other. ‘Before you go, Tolly, I want us – I want us to be together.’

‘Aren’t we together now?’

‘Yes, but together. As if…as if we were wed. I want us to do it. So you’ll think of me and no one else. Not those French girls.’

It took a second for the full realisation of what she was saying to dawn on Tolly. Do it? What? Have…do…that? They had kissed, of course, and held each other, but that?

A shock like electricity surged through his nervous system. Blood coursed and his cock answered the call of its own accord, becoming a hot, hard lump, a self-willed urgency. He crossed and recrossed his legs, squirming, embarrassed. Ruth registered the movement and gave a secret smile. Grandma Oldham had explained everything.

Tolly found his voice. ‘I don’t want any of those French girls,’ he said. ‘I want you.’

‘Then, Private Soldier Tolman, Bartholomew, you shall have me,’ she smiled. ‘And I shall have you. Tonight, at Grandma Oldham’s. Shall we go?’

 

 

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