High on the northern side of the mining town of Netherwood was a wind blown swathe of common land – not vast, certainly not a wilderness, but wide and varied enough for a person who walked there to feel unfettered and alone. It wasn’t much to look at: coarse grass more yellow than green, pockets of unchecked scrub, spiteful, unruly gangs of hawthorn, the occasional jagged, craggy outcrop hinting at a wild and different geology before man roamed the earth, let alone farmed or mined it. According to a bill of commoners’ rights, the people of the town were entitled to put their livestock out to graze here, but in this community of miners it wasn’t much of an advantage. The grass was kept down by a small herd of retired pit ponies, stocky little Welsh breeds which had survived the rigours of their long, underground life and been given the freedom of the common in return. Once in a blue moon someone managed to acquire a pig but the common was unfenced, and while the ponies always managed to respect the boundaries, pigs seemed cursed by curiosity and wanderlust: even a sturdy pen built by Percy Medlicott a few years ago had failed to contain his Tamworth sow. It had rubbed its snout against the latch until it slipped and the gate had swung open obligingly – proof, folk liked to say, that the pig was brighter than Percy. The pen was still standing but the sow had met an early end on Turnpike Lane in a collision with a coach-and-four. Percy had had to share the spoils with the driver, who had been unseated from the box by the accident; the man had travelled home to York the following day with a fractured collarbone, a half leg pork joint and a packet of loin chops, by way of compensation.
So Netherwood Common, not being of any great practical benefit to anyone, was simply enjoyed by the townsfolk for what it was: a natural open space – rare enough in this grey industrial landscape – where children could play out of earshot of their mothers and a working man could smoke a Woodbine in peace. The common in its present form had evolved over the past hundred years and it owed its existence to the three collieries that dominated the town, because as coal production replaced agriculture as Netherwood’s raison d’etre, the fertile land became infinitely less valuable than the stuff beneath. The area’s farmland origins could still be seen in the hedgerows and ancient field boundaries that criss-crossed the common, but it was over a century now since the soil there had been tilled or crops planted.
Like everything else in the neighbourhood the common fell within the vast acreage of the Netherwood Estate, and from its highest point, and facing south, an observer could map the principal features of the Earl’s Yorkshire dominion. New Mill, Long Martley and Middlecar collieries – positioned respectively north, east and south of the town – dominated the outlook, their muck stacks, headstocks and winding gear stark and graphic against the sky. The residential terraces, long rows of coal-blackened, doughty, stone houses, stood like stocky bulwarks, built to withstand the worst of the four winds. Victoria Street, Market Street and Mill Lane claimed precedence on the south side of town and formed its modest commercial centre, where small shops, stalls and barrows plied their trade and vied for custom with the Co-operative Society, whose premises, like its profits, seemed to grow annually. One town hall. One town hall clock tower. Three public houses. Three churches – one high, two low. And then beyond Mill Lane and Middlecar Colliery, but still visible from the common, the road gradually narrowed and dipped, following the contours of a shallow valley and leading to the gate – one of four – to the ancestral home of Edward and Clarissa Hoyland, the sixth Earl and Countess of Netherwood.
The great house itself, Netherwood Hall, was tucked away, out of sight: a remarkable feat, given its size, and a fortuitous one. Not only was great privacy accorded the aristocratic family within, but also they were spared the unlovely sight of the scarred landscape of the Yorkshire coalfields.But beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Eve Williams and Anna Rabinovich, standing on this clear August day on the highest point of the common, saw nothing to offend the eye as they regarded the familiar vista before them.
‘See?’ Anna said, arms spread before her in a proprietorial way, as if she was personally responsible for the view. ‘World at your feet.’ Her accent, her hybrid dialect of Russian and Yorkshire, made most of her statements sound comical. She had no end of colloquialisms to hand, but somehow never remembered to use the definite article.
Eve laughed. ‘Always knew it was only a matter o’ time,’ she said.
‘But imagine, Eve. All this, ours.’
‘Aye, ours and three thousand other folk’s. It’s a common, y’know, not a back garden.’
Anna shrugged. Mere detail, and detail was the enemy of an adventurous spirit. She had brought her friend up here, dragging her unwillingly away from all the things she should be doing, to look at a house. It was the only property on the common, a large, detached villa, deeper than it was wide, double-fronted with generous bay windows and its name and date carved in stone over the door: Ravenscliffe, 1852. Like everything else, it belonged to Lord Hoyland, though it had been designed and built by the same architect who was responsible for most of the dwellings in Netherwood. Abraham Carr had sought and been granted permission from the present earl’s father to erect a house for his own use and at his own expense, and had named it nostalgically for the Yorkshire village of his birth. Then, just five years after taking up residence, he had passed away: born in one Ravenscliffe, died in another. The house was bought by the Netherwood estate, absorbed into all its other possessions and instantly put to work. Various tenants had taken it in the forty years since Mr Carr’s demise, merchants, mostly, or people from the professional classes whose wages stretched further than those of the miners. Now, though, it was empty. Unfurnished. Unloved. And Anna wanted to live there.
Something about the house spoke to her, and you should listen to a house, she believed. She wasn’t in any other way a fanciful person, never looked for meanings or omens in everyday happenings, never tried to interpret her dreams or fathom the patterns of the stars, but a house was another matter: there were good ones and bad ones and the two could look identical, but while one would bring happiness, the other would bring only misery. As a child in Kiev, in another life and time, she had lived in an imposing mansion with towers at each end and six wide steps up to the front door. It was her father’s statement to the world that he was a successful man, but for all its fineness Anna knew, even as an infant, that it was riddled with misery, from its foundations to its roof tiles. She never understood why: some houses were afflicted, that was all. When her parents disowned her for marrying a Jew, when they spat on the floor at her feet and told her never to return she had thought, it’s the house speaking: you two have been here too long.
This house on the common, though, this Ravenscliffe, held the promise of happiness. Its hearths were empty and cold, but there was warmth here nevertheless. Anna had stood before it, looked it in the eye, and recognised this at once. So her mission in persuading Eve that the rent – though four times what they currently payed – was of negligible concern compared to the ease and comfort it would bring, came directly from the heart. She felt compelled to win this battle, overcome her friend’s reservations, press her point. In any case, from a purely practical point of view, they were bursting at the seams in Beaumont Lane. And when Eve and Daniel were wed, he would be there too, because Eve and the children couldn’t live in that doll’s house they’d put him in at the hall. And then babies might come. No. There was simply no other course of action.
They walked back down towards the house, and Anna could tell from the silence and her friend’s unfocused gaze that Eve’s mind had drifted elsewhere.
‘Bedrooms for us all,’ Anna said, to pull her back to the matter in hand. ‘Space for your children and my little Maya. Fresh air.’
‘Mmm, as fresh as it gets round ‘ere, anyroad.’
‘And kitchen big enough to dance polka. And bathroom, Eve. No tin tubs and outdoor privy.’
‘Yes, Anna. I know. It’s just ….’
‘I know. Beaumont Street was Arthur’s home,’ she said, with the slightest hint of weariness, as if she’d heard it once too often.
‘Don’t say it like that, as if it’s not rational of me to think of it.’
Eve, provoked, stopped abruptly so that when Anna turned to face her she had to trot back up the slope a little way.
‘That’s not what I meant,’ Anna said, though it was, in part. ‘What I meant was, I understand how you feel, how leaving Arthur’s home would feel.’
‘It’s not just me,’ said Eve, setting off again. ‘I mean, I’m not only worried on my account.’
Anna sighed. ‘Seth?’
‘Aye. ‘E’s already ‘ad too much to take on.’
No more than Eliza and Ellen, thought Anna, but she held her tongue. Eve’s oldest child made heavy weather of life, in her view, and was as rude and withdrawn with Daniel as he had been with Anna herself, when she first moved in to Beaumont Lane eighteen months ago, after Arthur was killed. It was a long road ahead for Daniel, if her own experience was anything to go by. All of this ran through Anna’s mind, as the two women walked in silence down the slope, then rounded the bend towards Ravenscliffe. Her heart lifted at the sight of it.
‘Eve,’ she said, quite urgently, so that they both halted again. Her friend turned to her, questioningly.
‘When you and Daniel marry,’ said Anna, ‘wouldn’t it be better for everyone if you made new home, and left one you had shared with Arthur?’
Eve sighed, looked at the ground. This conversation, kindly meant, was nevertheless unsettling. ‘Probably,’ she said.
‘Arthur lives on in your children, you know, not in bricks and mortar.’
‘Aye. I know that.’ And she did. But still, she thought, it was a link with him. She didn’t want her love for Daniel to eclipse her memories of Arthur: that would be wrong, disrespectful, less than he deserved. While she lived in her little terrace in Beaumont Lane, she could still picture him, at the table wolfing his dinner, or in the tub sluicing off the coal dust. Where would he be in Ravenscliffe?
They went in, though; like a cat burglar Anna had cased the joint and found a sash window that had been left unfastened. She opened it now and ushered Eve through it, holding up her skirts and giving her a gentle push into a large square entrance hall. There was never any resisting Anna when she was on a mission. They stood for a moment in the profound stillness of the empty house.
‘You’ll get us arrested,’ Eve whispered. She was half-impressed, half- scandalised at her friend’s resourcefulness.
‘No need to whisper,’ Anna said boldly. ‘Come,’ and she set off through the ground floor with a certainty of purpose that suggested she’d been here before. There was nothing to be done but follow her, so Eve dispatched her disapproval and allowed herself to be led from one large, impressive room to another. Abraham Carr had done a fine job. There was a fair amount of dust, and the spiders had claimed all the corners, but there was no getting away from the fact that this was a glorious house, flooded with natural light, substantially built and sure of itself, adorned with Victorian flourishes – lavishly tiled floors, plaster cornicing, marble fire surrounds, a sweeping, mahogany staircase – and positioned to make the most of the views of Netherwood Common, from the front and from the back. How odd it would be, thought Eve, as she gazed through one of two windows in the large kitchen, to look out every day on grass and trees. Anna joined her and Eve said: ‘Makes a change from looking at Lilly and Maud’s bloomers on t’washing line dunt it?’
‘At least when their bloomers are up you can’t see privvies.’
They laughed, then Anna wandered across to the other window and Eve turned to study the black range. It was rather fine, a Leamington Kitchener, twice the size of her range in Beaumont Lane and with no visible faults that a pot of black lead and a rag wouldn’t solve. It was set into a recess, which was bordered on its two long sides by carved columns and across its top by a handsome mantel in the same classical style, giving the range the appearance of a prize exhibit, carefully positioned by a curator. Eve placed her hands on the top of the stove. She wondered how long it had stood cold.
Anna said: ‘You could watch Seth play knur and spell from here, see?’
Eve turned back to the window and joined her friend, who pointed up the hill outside towards the wide clearing of trampled grass where men gathered most Saturday afternoons with their pummels and knurs. Miners’ golf, some people called it, though it was tougher than golf to master, and as much about strength as strategy. Seth had watched his father play ever since he was old enough to be taken along to matches, and now he used his dad’s pummel which was too big for him, really, but try telling him that. If the competition wasn’t too fierce or if they were a man short, Seth was asked to join in; along with the allotment, it was the one thing that could make him smile.
Eve moved to Anna’s side, saw the same long wide slope, and the same clearing. But she didn’t see Seth there. She saw Arthur. Jacket discarded on the floor, shirt sleeves rolled above the elbows, facing the spell and its finely-balanced knur, his eyes never leaving the ball as the spring launched it up and he swiped it long and true with the pummel his own father had made for him. That’s where Arthur would be at Ravenscliffe, she thought. Not in the house, but up there, on the hill.
She turned and walked out of the kitchen so abruptly that Anna was sure she had taken against the idea of the move, once and for all, and as they clambered back out of the window Eve was silent. But then as she pulled open the front gate, which hung lopsided, its top hinge having splintered away from the post, she said: ‘That’ll need fixing for a start.’
Beside her but unseen, Anna smiled.
Clarissa Hoyland, in bed, draped in Flanders lace, propped up on three fat pillows, turned a petulant face towards her husband. It was the same expression her youngest daughter used when early signs indicated she might not get her way; brows puckered, bottom lip jutting, the suggestion of tears in her eyes. But of course, Isabella was only twelve. The child was away from home for a few weeks, staying with cousins in Suffolk, but Teddy Hoyland felt her presence now, in the bed before him.
‘I simply can’t see the difficulty,’ said the countess. ‘And I wonder at you, Teddy, presenting me with obstacles at every turn, when already there is so much to be organised.’
‘Obstacles! I hardly think so.’
The earl, standing at the foot of his wife’s bed, was already dressed and replete with breakfast, ready for the day’s business, while Clarissa still lay dishevelled and rosy in a tumble of bed covers. She was slow to surface in the mornings, unfurling delicately each new day like a fern, while her husband woke like one of his black Labradors, bounding from sleep and into wakefulness with infinite gusto. His rude health and sturdiness seemed almost an affront here, in his wife’s room. The countess was tiny, bones like a bird, wrists you could encircle with room to spare between index finger and thumb. Lying there under the satin counterpane she looked fragile and vulnerable, and though he knew that any suggestion of weakness was an illusion – that she was, in fact, armed with a will of iron and nerves of steel – still she made him feel like a cad, a tweed-clad brute, denying his charming wife the smallest happiness. This was how she triumphed, always.
‘Very well,’ she said now, arranging her face into a mask of brave resignation. ‘We shall put him off.’
She picked up her novel and began to read, though it was upside down. For a short while he watched her, more amused than annoyed. Then he said: ‘Now, Clarissa. That won’t be necessary.’
She looked up.
‘Oh, you’re still here! Well I beg to differ, Teddy. Far better the king doesn’t come to Netherwood at all, than to come and find us lacking.’
The Earl of Netherwood knew well enough what the royal visit meant to his wife. As Prince of Wales he had visited three times: as king, not at all. Now that the monarch was at last expected, Teddy knew how important it was, in Clarissa’s opinion, that Bertie should leave with the impression of having enjoyed limitless hospitality at the finest, most gracious country house in the whole of England. But still. To insist upon a programme of complete and lavish redecoration was one thing: to declare the bathrooms – all of them – as unfit for use was quite another. And this, just four weeks before King Edward and his entourage was due. Lord Netherwood decided to make one last appeal to reason.
‘My dear, the house has never looked so spruce. You’ve done a magnificent job’ – this, to appeal to her vanity – ‘and your instincts in matters of style and taste are unsurpassed.’ She looked at him askance now, because even she detected flattery and flannel. ‘But there is neither the time nor the need to tear out perfectly good bathroom furniture for the benefit of Bertie. A lavatory he sat on as Prince of Wales will serve him just as well as king.’
‘Teddy!’ she said.
‘Well it’s true. We entertained him in grand style before, without any real upheaval at all. I’m perfectly confident we shall do the same again.’
She put down her book.
‘I’m sorry, Teddy. New baths, new basins, new lavatories, or I shall declare us indisposed. Something dreadfully infectious, perhaps. A polite letter to Sir Francis Knollys warning of the risk to the king of scarlet fever.’
Of course he knew, as she knew, that the ultimatum was preposterous. Clarissa would sooner run naked through the streets of Netherwood than write such a letter to the king’s man. In any case, if it suited Bertie to visit Netherwood Hall – and it did, as he was currently in Doncaster for the St Leger – then visit he would. An outbreak of scarlet fever, real or imaginary, would be of no account. He pleased himself, did Bertie, and on this occasion he had done as he always did by blithely announcing his intention to visit, entirely at his own convenience, leaving the honoured hosts to a tumult of anxious preparation. However, standing before his beautiful, pouting, manipulative wife Teddy decided – not for the first time, nor for the last – to cave in. It was certainly his quickest route out of the countess’s rooms and into the fresh air and it wasn’t as if they couldn’t afford the work. And if Clarissa was happy, generally speaking, they all were happy. She had, after all, already been forced to conceded the vexed point of Dorothea Sterling’s invitation to Netherwood Hall. No small concession either, given her initial opposition to that particular scheme.
‘Very well,’ said the Earl. ‘Talk to Motson. If he believes the work can be achieved in the time available, go ahead.’
‘Thank you Teddy,’ she said, briskly now that her mission was accomplished. She blew him a kiss by way of dismissal so he took his cue, exiting his wife’s room just as a housemaid arrived with lemon tea. The girl stepped back, and bobbed a respectful curtsey, rattling the cup in the saucer with nerves as she did so. She should save her awe for a figure of actual authority, thought the Earl wryly as he strode off down the long corridor. Underfoot, the pile of the new carpet felt soft and rich, not that the old one had ever seemed unsatisfactory to him. New bathroom furniture indeed. He wasn’t sure who was the bigger fool: his wife, for inventing the project, or himself for sanctioning it.
In her room, the countess lay back on the pillows and picked up a notepad and pencil that she kept at all times on her nightstand. She had many of her best ideas in bed, in those unstructured moments just before sleeping or waking, when the mind loosened itself from the shackles of daily routine. In bed, she had imagined any number of wonderful dresses for herself and the girls that had subsequently been realised by her dressmaker in chiffon or satin or cotton lawn. In bed, too, she had visualised garden schemes – the famous wisteria tunnel, the pagoda in the japanese water garden, the precise combination of blooms in the white border – and last night, just before she succumbed to sleep, she had seen in her mind’s eye the exquisite rope of tightly plaited orchids in magenta and cream which must grace the table for the forthcoming royal party. She had sat up at once and sketched these and would hand them on later today to Mrs Powell-Hughes, the housekeeper. Now, though, she took up the pad and wrote ‘Motson’ to remind herself to send word that he should begin work immediately on the main bathrooms of the east wing. She had every faith in him and his small army of workmen to complete the work swiftly, and in any case, everything they needed was ordered already; stylish pieces with sleek, modern lines in white porcelain with chrome accessories. Because while she felt it was only polite to seek her husband’s permission, the process was, in fact, just a formality; she had not had even the smallest doubt that her wish would be granted.
Henrietta was waiting for the earl at the bottom of the main staircase, where the graceful curve of the bannister concluded its journey with a flourish in the form of a fine, intricately carved newel post. She was leaning against it with her back to her father as he began his descent and the shameful notion crossed his mind that he might yet retreat and take the servants’ stairs instead. He didn’t, though, dismissing the idea even as it was conceived and, as if to make up for the unrealised slight, he called cheerfully to her as he bounded down, two stairs at a time as always.
‘Morning Henry!’ He almost sang the greeting.
She turned and smiled, but it was tight and brief, with no accompanying twinkle which meant – as he had feared – that she had something in particular to say and indeed she wasted no time on pleasantries but launched straight in to the first item on her agenda.
‘I have to say Daddy, the very least you might have done is read it.’
Merciful heavens, he thought to himself, would his womenfolk give him no peace? He tried a rueful smile but she regarded him sternly without a hint of forgiveness; his oldest daughter would make a splendid governess, he thought, if ever they fell into penury. She waggled at him a wad of papers loosely bound in a buff-coloured folder which had sat on his desk for three days now, growing ever less visible under the gradual accumulation of newspapers and other matters pending, but which Henry had obviously ferretted out this morning. He did wish she wouldn’t make quite so free with his study: like his club and the outside lavatory, it was no place for a woman.
‘Here,’ she said, handing over the document. ‘Look at it now. It’s fascinating.’
He flipped it open and held it out at arms length, which was the only way he seemed to be able to read anything these days. ‘The West Riding Colliery Centre for Training Men in Mines Rescue – bit of a mouthful,’ he said. He looked at his daughter. ‘And who is this chap, did you say?’
‘Mr Garforth. The safety lamp man. He’s quite local. We could meet him, visit the centre. People do, you see. Mining engineers and what-not.’
‘Whoah, now,’ said the earl, as if steadying his hunter. ‘Let’s not run ahead.’
‘Daddy, what possible argument could you have against making our miners safer?’
None, of course, when she put it like that. But life was never so simple as Henrietta liked to make out. First of all, the king’s visit was imminent and while the earl balked at using that as an excuse to his principled daughter for postponing this particular issue, it was nevertheless a consideration, and a major one at that. Second, he doubted if any of the miners at his collieries would take kindly to going back to school and in their own time too. Third, he was in any case sceptical about the need for any kind of extra training for his men when all they really needed to know was how to extract coal. In this they were expert practitioners.
‘Thank you Henry,’ he said, reining her in firmly. ‘Please don’t begin one of your moral monologues. I will read this, but in my own time if you please because just at this moment I have other more urgent business to attend to.’
She made as if to speak, then thought better of it. She knew her father well: no progress would be made if he felt harried. But this fellow, this Garforth, he sounded simply splendid. It seemed to Henrietta a foolish, backwards-looking thing to resist innovation in their own field of industry.
Behind her and with a decisive clunk, the oak door of her father’s study swung shut and Henrietta, taking her cue, strode through the hallway, seized her riding crop from the umbrella stand, and left the house for the uncomplicated pleasures of the saddle.
Downstairs, in the kitchens, the hubbub caused by the preparation of breakfast had subsided. All that remained were the mingled smells – grilled meat, poached haddock, fried tomatoes, coddled eggs – and the dirty skillets, crockery and cutlery now piled high on the board by the sink. These, however, were no concern of Mary Adams, who had years ago done with tedious jobs such as dishwashing. As cook, it was now her perfect right to take the weight off her swollen legs and sit down on the carver – her throne, the scullery maids called it, out of range of her hearing – and eke out what little gossip there was with the nearest available body. Unfortunately for Mrs Adams, this morning it was Elizabeth Powell-Hughes, who had a habit of taking an opening gambit and nipping it smartly in the bud. The cook’s defensive tone and thwarted expression suggested that this frustrating process was already under way.
‘Well ‘islop never made a moment’s trouble, that’s all I can say. No’bdy easier to please than ‘im,’
‘Now, Mary. Hislop could be a cantankerous old devil, and well you know it.’
Mrs Powell-Hughes regarded the cook sternly over the top of her gold-rimmed spectacles; she was a cut above Mrs Adams in breeding and status and was the only person in the household – other than the family, though they rarely used the privilege – who got away with calling her Mary. She herself, however, was Mrs Powell-Hughes to everyone – had no memory, in fact, of the last time anyone called her Elizabeth, as these last thirty years had been spent in service at Netherwood. There was no Mr Powell-Hughes, of course. Never had been. But there was less respect conferred by a Miss, so Mrs Powell-Hughes she was. Mrs P-H to the family and, very occasionally to Parkinson, the butler, but only when he’d had a sherry at Christmas, and even then he felt he was probably overstepping a line.
‘Aye, but that was out there, on ‘is own territory.’ Mrs Adams swung a fat arm towards the garden. ‘In ‘ere, ‘e was as quiet as a mouse.’
The cook was rewriting history again, thought Mrs Powell-Hughes. She did this, when it suited her story. No matter what the evidence was to the contrary, she would concoct her own version of events and present it as gospel. In fact Hislop, the retired head gardener, had been – and still was, no doubt – a sharp-tongued, ill-mannered gnome of a man, too easily rattled and too ready to curse. His replacement, a handsome fellow with a Scots burr and an easy manner, was a more than satisfactory exchange. And his crime, in Mary Adam’s book of kitchen law, had been to reject the cup of tea he’d been given because he preferred to drink it without milk. Ironic, really, when Mrs Powell-Hughes knew that Daniel MacLeod was carrying on with Eve Williams. That was gossip worth the trouble. But nothing would have prised it from the housekeeper’s discreet mouth.
‘Pushed it away, like it was poison,’ said the cook, working herself up all over again, though it was two weeks, now, since the atrocity took place.
Mrs Powell-Hughes said: ‘Mary, I was there at the time, so think on,’ and Mrs Adams, while determined to cherish and nurture the offence, nevertheless held her tongue. She would save her indignation for a more receptive audience, since it was clearly wasted on the housekeeper. Still, she huffed a little, inwardly. Tea without milk. Who could trust such a man?
Mrs Powell-Hughes reached for her fob, checked the time, let it drop. She wore it like a medal on her chest, with a black grosgrain ribbon to hide the pin.
‘Linens,’ she said, standing up. Always the first to finish a sit-down, thought Mrs Adams, truly out of humour now with her colleague. Always leaping to her feet as if she was the only one with work to do. The kitchen door swung open and a pink-cheeked housemaid entered, carrying the now-empty china cup and saucer she had taken upstairs, full of tea, to the countess ten minutes ago.
‘Slowly, Agnes,’ said the housekeeper. ‘The next cup you chip through carelessness comes out of your wages, remember.’
The girl said: ‘Sorry Mrs Powell-‘ughes. Mrs Powell-‘ughes?’
”Er ladyship gave me this, for Mr Motson.’
She passed a note to the housekeeper, a sheet of thick vellum, folded in half but without an envelope. There was no doubting for whose eyes it was intended, since it had ‘Mr Motson’ written on it quite clearly in Lady Hoyland’s distinctive hand, but who wouldn’t sneak a look, in those circumstances? Certainly Agnes had, in the privacy of the back stairs, and now she and the cook watched as Mrs Powell-Hughes flicked open the notepaper and quickly scanned its contents. Her expression was inscrutable. She folded it back, and placed it in the pocket of her skirt.
‘Well?’ said Mrs Adams. ‘What is it?’
‘More work for my girls, that’s what,’ she said, tight lipped, and left it at that. Mrs Adams watched in disbelief as the housekeeper swept from the room, all dignified restraint and self-importance. The cook turned to the girl.
‘Well?’ she said, again.
‘All t’bathrooms are coming out. Before t’king comes,’ she said.
Mrs Adams smiled. Comeuppance, she thought to herself with immense satisfaction. Comeuppance. That’s what that was.
‘Runners, peas, lettuce, caulis, onions, plums, raspberries and goosegogs. Where do you want ‘em?’
Amos Sykes stood in the open doorway of the kitchen, bearing in his arms with visible effort a large, muddy box of newly harvested produce. His face, ruddy from the sun, had rivulets of sweat running in lines from under the brim of his cap, and he blinked in an effort to redirect them away from his eyes. It was a long walk from the allotment, and hot enough outside to crack the flagstones.
Nellie Kay, chopping onions as if she bore them a personal grudge, didn’t look up from the task but said, ‘Somewhere folk won’t fall over ‘em.’
She said this grimly, as if it happened all the time, as if Amos carelessly depositing his veg boxes in people’s paths was a regular occurrence. In fact it had never yet happened and he rolled his eyes at Alice Buckle, who blushed and looked away, afraid of taking anyone’s side against the formidable Nellie. Alice was stationed this morning at the sink, peeling potatoes with the swift efficiency that came from years of practice, and Amos walked over to leave the vegetables on her side of the room.
‘Eve in?’ he said.
‘Aye,’ said Alice. ‘Upstairs.’ She tilted her head upwards, to underline the point, but she didn’t look at him or stop peeling. The big sink was full of potatoes, and there was another sack on the floor. Leek and potato soup on the menu today, though they were calling it by a strange foreign name she couldn’t remember and serving it cold which seemed like an odd business to Alice. The weather would never be so hot that the Buckles didn’t feel the need to warm their soup on the stove, but Eve had come back from her spell in London with new ideas, and not just chilled soup, though that was probably the most outlandish. You could still order it warm if you wanted to, though, and Alice was comforted by this nod to normality. There were fishcakes today too, new for the summer menu but reassuringly familiar. The cod was waiting for her in the cold store, wrapped in the fishmonger’s blue and white paper; when the potatoes were done, the fish had to be skinned and pin-boned and Alice’s nimble fingers seemed better suited than anyone else’s to this delicate task. She would work like a blind woman, gazing ahead while her fingertips ran swiftly up and down the fish fillet feeling for the tiny bones, thin and flimsy as eyelashes, and whipping them out with a surgeon’s precision. These jobs – the peeling, the skinning, the boning – were always performed with a single-minded dedication which left no room for chit chat. She knew, for instance, that everything in the dinnertime service would be skewed if the present job wasn’t done by half past ten and she would rather plunge the paring knife into her heart than fail at the task. Alice, plucked last year from domestic obscurity and placed here, in the working hub of Eve’s Puddings & Pies at Mitchell’s old flourmill, would do anything for Eve Williams, and would rather die than let her down. True, in coming to work for her she had simply swapped one kind of drudgery for another, but here, in this professional kitchen, Alice felt more valued than she ever had at home, where her taciturn husband Jonas was king and her own place in the family hierarchy was some way beneath the children, the dog and the racing pigeons that Jonas kept in the back yard. More than that though, Alice somehow felt that Eve had made her part of a great venture, a new chapter in Netherwood’s history. This wonderful idea – too grandiose and self-regarding to ever be shared with anyone else – was what sustained her as she peeled her way through the potato mountain.
Amos knew he’d get no small talk out of Alice Buckle. In any case, it was Eve he was after so he climbed the stairs, puffing in the heat. The summer, which everyone had thought was done, had come once again to Netherwood, its fierce, debilitating heat hitting the town with a heavyweight punch, so that people in the street went about their business with stunned expressions and a lead limbed lethargy, all the time longing for shade. In the upstairs dining room at the mill, all the windows were open, but the muslin curtains, drawn against the glare, were absolutely still and Eve, sitting at one of the tables with Ginger Timpson, fanned herself with a menu as they spoke. She had her back to Amos, so it was Ginger who saw him first.
‘Amos Sykes, as I live and breath,’ she said. ‘Never too ‘ot to leave your cap at ‘ome, is it?’
He pulled it off now, and grinned at her. ‘Got to keep the sun off my penalty spot,’ he said, patting the patch of thinning hair on his crown.
Eve turned, and smiled with pleasure. He was a rare sight at the mill these days.
‘You’re a good man, to bring us a delivery in this ‘eat,’ she said.
‘Some beautiful produce down there,’ he said. ‘Raspberries like this.’ He made an oval with his thumb and index finger. The fruit cage had been his own idea, and he and Seth had built it themselves out of canes and chicken wire. It sagged here and there, but kept the birds off the berries, and had distracted Seth, for the time being, from building a melon pit. ‘And gooseberries like this.’ He made another shape with the other hand, a circle this time, and implausibly large. Ginger raised a sceptical eyebrow, but kept her mouth shut. Fresh produce was fresh produce. No point offending the gardener. She looked at Eve.
‘Crumbles, then? Or pies?’ she said.
‘Meringues, I’d say. For the raspberries anyroad. Serve ‘em with whipped cream. And gooseberry fool. Or set some aside for jam, if there’s plenty.’
Ginger nodded and stood up. ‘I’ll go an’ get cracking,’ she said. ‘Twenty booked in for dinner, and who knows who’ll drop in unannounced.’ She nodded at Amos as she left, and he returned the compliment then turned to Eve.
‘Busy as ever then?’ he said.
‘Busier, if anythin’. We’ve been non-stop this week an’ next month the Fortnum’s order starts. I shall need more staff at this rate. ‘Ow’s things with you?’
‘Champion,’ he said.
‘Work all right?’
‘Allotment doin’ well?’
He wagged his head, made a little downturned arc with his mouth. ‘So so,’ he said. ‘Could do wi’ rain, but Seth manages to keep it all watered.’
‘Seth loves that garden. It’s ‘is chief pleasure in life.’
‘Aye, well. Seth’s a grand lad. Grand worker an’ all’
Their conversation limped a little, still hampered by a lingering awkwardness between them. It wasn’t quite a year since Amos had offered Eve his hand in marriage and been immediately declined, kindly but emphatically. There was nothing maudlin about the man, but still he’d felt injured by her rejection and the healing properties of time had been slow to work their cure. Now, of course, she was engaged to be wed to another man. This fact, as much as anything else, had closed his heart to any further thoughts of romance with Eve Williams. He wasn’t fool enough to give chase when she was already caught.
‘It was Seth I wanted a word about, as a matter o’ fact,’ he said now.
‘Nowt to worry about. Not yet, anyroad. Just, ‘e’s been on about going down t’pit after ‘e turns twelve. I’ve told ‘im what I think o’ that plan, but you might want a chat wi’ ‘im yourself.’
Amos delivered his news casually, without drama, but Eve’s face fell. Her boy, the oldest of her three children, would be perfectly well aware of the explosive effect this information would have on his mother and undoubtedly this new development was calculated to wound. Seth was angry with her most of the time these days; the arrival in Netherwood of Daniel, the suspicion that they were planning a life together, the shift in the normal order of things that, for him, had anyway only recently settled into an acceptable pattern – all this had sent the boy into a dark mood from which he only really surfaced in the company of Amos. Eve knew, of course she did, that the boy missed his father every day, and she tried to take account of this when his behaviour overstepped the mark. But here was Amos, innocently delivering Seth’s bombshell, quite unaware that only yesterday, over dinner, Eve had talked to the boy about college in Sheffield, about all the different, wonderful directions that an education could take a man and though he had sat there wordless, she had thought he was taking it in, was even, in spite of his sullenness, interested. He was a clever boy, a reader and a thinker, and he knew very well that there was no need for him to scrape a meagre living underground, but now it occurred to her that he would perhaps do it, just to hurt her.
‘Seth doesn’t say a lot to me,’ was all she said, though, to Amos.
‘No, well, like ‘is father. A man o’ few words.’
Like Arthur, and not like, thought Eve. Her late husband never made her feel, as Seth did now, that all her decisions were selfish ones. He was a carbon copy in appearance though, and – just like Arthur – a devil for clamming up when something troubled him. Even now, nearly eighteen months after his dad was killed in a rockfall at New Mill Colliery, Eve was certain that somewhere within Seth, buried like the coal under its protective layers of rock and shale, lay an untapped seam of grief.
‘Do you think ‘e wants to do it for Arthur?’ she said, hope suddenly springing forth that Seth might be motivated by love for his father rather than by resentment towards her.
‘Aye, ‘appen so.’
Amos replaced his cap as he spoke, a signal to Eve, subtle but unmistakable, that his involvement in the problem was ended now that he had passed it on to her. This, Eve had found, was the price she had paid for turning him down. There was a time he would have done anything for her and her small family. Now, and not unreasonably, there were limits to his generosity and concern. But he still worked the allotment with Seth as often as his new job at the miners’ union allowed, and for that Eve was grateful.
‘Well, thanks, Amos, for lettin’ me know. And for the fruit an’ veg. It’s what folk keep coming back for, y’know, that home grown produce.’
He smiled. ‘I think it might ‘ave more to do wi’ what you do wi’ it after I’ve picked it,’ he said.
She stood to go back downstairs with him. ‘Well take summat ‘ome wi’ you. There’s plenty ready.’
They walked together across the dining room. The windows, six of them, elegantly arched and draped in soft muslin, flooded the long room with light and the polished wooden floor gleamed honey-coloured underfoot. There were jugs of sweet peas on the tables, and blue and white cloths, made from old linen flour sacks that Anna had found stashed in a chest in a forgotten corner. The effect was charming.
‘You’ve worked wonders up ‘ere,’ said Amos. He remembered its beginnings, an abandoned storeroom in the disused flourmill, the floor thick with bird droppings, the beams chock full of roosting pigeons.
‘It’s Anna’s work, mostly’ Eve said. ‘She ‘as an eye for this sort o’ thing. She’s a demon wi’ that sewing machine.’
Ginger, standing at the foot of the stairs, hollered up. ‘Eve, there’s a wooden crate been delivered. Is it summat we’re expectin’?’
They joined her downstairs, their progress at the bottom impeded by the large crate in question. Its lid was nailed shut and across the top, stamped in black ink, it said MRS A. WILLIAMS, NETHERWOOD, YORKSHIRE. That was all. They stood for a moment, staring. It had the look of a crate that had travelled some distance to be here.
‘Now then,’ Eve said, puzzled. ‘Amos?’
‘Nowt to do wi’ me,’ he said. But he was curious enough to linger while Nellie – this was her kind of job – prised off the lid in short order with a sturdy steel knife. A thick layer of straw hid the contents and Ginger stepped back, as if something alive, or explosive, might be revealed beneath. Alice, still peeling, watched from the safety of the sink.
‘Go on,’ said Eve to Nellie, who didn’t need asking twice and pulled with two hands at the blanket of straw.
They all stared.
‘What’s them then?’ said Nellie.
‘Them’s bananas,’ Ginger said.
And they were. Hand after hand of yellow bananas, each layer protected from the next by more straw. At the sink Alice, overcome with mute astonishment, dropped her knife and it fell with a discordant clatter, disturbing the respectful silence.
‘Can’t grow them in Netherwood soil,’ said Amos.
Eve looked at him, then back at the bananas, then back at Amos again, a broad smile lighting her face and her eyes shining with what looked, to the others, very much like glee.
‘Silas,’ she said, as if this enigmatic pronouncement explained everything. The others, Amos, Ginger, Nellie and Alice, looked at her uncomprehendingly.
‘My brother,’ she said. ”E said ‘e’d send me some, and now ‘e ‘as.”