The journey back to Crabapple Cottage took Barbara almost an hour. She pushed her bicycle into its designated slot in the garage and, without checking to see if her mother was home, walked straight round to the stables. Silver needed exercising; the mare would be wondering why she hadn’t appeared to take her out.
‘I’ll not be a moment, Silver; sorry to have kept you so long this morning,’ she called as she hurried into the tack room to change. Her mother insisted her riding clothes remained outside. Barbara also had to wash them herself and hang them on a line in the yard.
In less than twenty minutes she was mounted and ready to leave. The sun was out and away from the coast it was warmer, the wind less biting. She trotted across the stubble field that ran behind the stables trying to decide where to go. She had been too miserable and tired on her way back to plan ahead.
The mare’s ears pricked at the sound of a car in the lane that ran beside the field. A car! Of course - John must have come into Hastings in his father’s car. That’s where he had gone, not to the cliff, but back to his motor. How stupid of her! She kept forgetting he was a man in a car, not a boy on a bicycle.
‘Come along, Silver, I know where to go. We’ll go to Brook Farm. John’s not leaving until later; I can catch him there if we hurry.’
Her heels touched and her mount responded, lengthening her stride into a long, easy canter. The few miles that separated their homes took her across fields, over hedges and ditches and in and out of Badgers Wood.
She clattered into the farmyard at one o’clock. Old Tom, the cowman, popped his head out of the milk parlour. ‘How do, Miss Sinclair. You’re just in time for lunch. Give me your mare, I’ll take care of her for you.’
‘Thank you, Tom. Is John back yet?’
Tom took the reins and patted the horse’s sweating neck. ‘No, he’s not, so you haven’t missed him.’
‘Silver’s a bit hot, I’ll walk her round for a while before I go in.’
‘That’s all right, miss, I’ll do it. You go on in, the missus will have seen you arrive and have your meal on the table.’
Barbara stopped at the yard tap to wash her hands, using her jodhpurs as a towel. In the large back entrance hall she pulled off her boots and stood them tidily next to the jumble of other discarded footwear. She hung her riding mac neatly on a peg. She padded along the flagged passageway to the heart of the Georgian farmhouse, the huge kitchen.
The door swung open as she approached. Aunt Irene greeted her. ‘Come along in, Babs, we’re just sitting down for lunch, soup and rabbit pasties. Would you like some?’ They exchanged hugs.
‘I’d love some. I’m starving. I ate breakfast at six o’clock and I’ve cycled in and out of town and ridden over here since then. And I never even got to eat my toasted teacake.’
Mr Thorogood waved as she came in but didn’t stand up, after all she was like one of the family. ‘John’s not back yet, love, but he’ll be here soon. I’m taking him to catch the train and it leaves just after three.’
She walked over and kissed his whiskery cheek. ‘I have to speak to him, Uncle Bill, we had a bit of a misunderstanding and I don’t want him to go away thinking… well… going away without sorting things out.’
‘Guessed as much when I saw you come in the yard. You don’t usually ride that horse of yours so hard. Something had to be up.’ He pulled out one of the mismatched wooden chairs. ‘Sit down and have some lunch. Tell us all about it if you want.’
Aunt Irene ladled out a generous portion of thick vegetable soup and set it down on the table. ‘Here; eat first, talk later. Everything seems better on a full stomach.’
‘Thank you. This smells lovely. Is it leek and potatoes?’
‘You know it is. It’s John’s favourite so what else could it be on his last day?’ Her voice faltered and she busied herself cutting her two thick slices of freshly-baked bread before continuing. ‘I know John’s got to do something, but flying? I wish he’d joined the army instead.’
‘I thought the same at first,’ Barbara said quietly. ‘I kept thinking - what if he crashes the plane, it’s not the same as a car, is it? But at least he’s not involved in hand-to-hand fighting and he’ll probably be based in England.’
‘I suppose you’re right, dear; if he’s stationed here he might get some home leave occasionally.’ She almost smiled. ‘I think the Navy’s the worst. Just imagine - all that water and never knowing when a German submarine is going to send a torpedo into your ship or a plane appear and drop bombs on you.’
‘Now, Irene love, that’s enough. No point upsetting yourself. Our John is going to be a pilot and he won’t even be fighting for a few months, he has to train first, doesn’t he? Plenty of time to start worrying when he joins an active squadron.’
She sniffed and patted her husband’s shoulder before sitting down. ‘You’re right, love, as usual. No point in getting het up. ‘
The marmalade cat curled up on top of the Aga yawned and appeared to wave his paw in Barbara’s direction. ‘Did you see that, Ginger’s waving at Babs? Well I never!’ Aunt Irene laughed, her usual good humour restored.
Barbara waved her soup spoon at the cat. ‘Good afternoon, Ginger. I expect it’s the smell of rabbit pasties in the oven that has woken him up, not my arrival.’
John’s mother put three mugs of strong, sweet tea on the table. ‘Well, Babs, are you going to tell us why you’re here, or is it a state secret?’ Uncle Bill said, ignoring his wife’s attempt to hush him.
Her cheeks coloured. She could hardly tell them what John had done; they would be as shocked as she was. She bit her lip, buried her nose in her tea to give herself time to think. Did they believe he had feelings for her as well?
‘We had a bit of a misunderstanding at the Copper Kettle. My arm got scalded and by the time Miss Whiting had sorted me out he’d vanished. I’d forgotten he must have come in the car and pedalled all the way to the cliffs to look for him.’
‘You burnt your arm? How did that happen? Is it bad?’
‘No, Auntie Irene, it’s nothing really. I knocked the teapot off the table and the tea went over me.’ Barbara didn’t want to continue this conversation. ‘Uncle Bill, John said you were going to get some land girls in to help you. I’m going to volunteer for the Land Army so anything you can tell me would be a great help. I’ve got out some leaflets but I haven’t had time to read them yet.’
They exchanged glances, believing the cause of the disagreement was now obvious. ‘Why don’t you join the WAFS, Babs, maybe you could get stationed near John then?’
‘I’d love to, but Mr Evans won’t hear of it. It’s this, or stay at home.’
‘I think it’s possible you’ll have to stay at home when you join the Land Army. I read somewhere that country girls can be asked to work locally,’ he told her.
‘What do you mean? I thought everyone was sent away.’
He shook his head. ‘Of course city girls would have to live away, but I’m sure it had something on this in my booklet.’
Barbara had to get away; life at Crabapple Cottage would be untenable after her brothers had gone. ‘Are you certain, Uncle Bill?’
He pushed back his chair. ‘I’ll go and find the pamphlet; it’s in the office somewhere.’
After he left Aunt Irene turned to Barbara, her face worried. ‘Is it still bad at home, love?’
She nodded. ‘Yes, Tom and David are leaving on Sunday for boarding school and it will be even worse then. I try so hard to please her, but nothing I do is right. Sometimes she just has to look at me and that’s enough to set her off.’
She patted Barbara’s hands. ‘You could always come and live with us, short of locking you up, they couldn’t stop that, could they?’
‘I can’t come here; they’d just cause trouble for you. I must get away. Do you know anything about my father, Charles Sinclair? Maybe I’ve got relatives somewhere who would take me in?’
‘I don’t know much, but I’ll tell you what I do know. Your mother had a glass too many of cowslip wine at a W.I Christmas party a few years ago and let slip a few facts. I know you look like your father and that’s part of the trouble.’
‘I guessed I must, I certainly don’t look like my mother, thank goodness.’
‘Do you remember him at all? You must have been about three when he died.’
‘I recall my mother crying, and being on a train with all our things, but nothing else.’
‘That would be when you came down here; your mother got a job as housekeeper at a house in town. She met Mr Evans soon after that and that’s how you ended up at Crabapple Cottage.’
‘Did my mother ever say anything about my having grandparents?’
Aunt Irene stirred her tea, lost in thought. She looked up, her plump face wreathed in smiles. ‘I remember. She once said that your dad’s family were well-to-do and hadn’t approved of her marrying their only son. They lived in Essex somewhere, I think Mr Sinclair might have been a medical man, but I’m not sure.’
‘Do you think the marriage wasn’t happy? That’s why she hates me because I remind her of a bad time in her life?’
‘Quite likely. Why don’t you ask her outright where your grandparents live and then contact them yourself? I bet they’d be happy to see you. They might not even know they have a granddaughter, if your mother didn’t get on with them, she might never have told them.’
They both looked towards the far door; the one that led to the front of the rambling house. There were footsteps approaching; John had returned for his farewell lunch.
Barbara brushed the crumbs from her beige jumper and ran her fingers through her curls hoping to restore some sort of order. She held her breath, watching, waiting for the door to open. John’s mother hurried to the cooker and bent down to remove the bowl of soup and a pasty from the warming oven.
The door opened and he walked in. His expression immediately changed from smiling to wary. He ignored her and addressed his mother. ‘Sorry I’m late, Mum, I went for a drive around. It might be some time before I’m back here. I wanted to say goodbye to the old place.’
Barbara stood up trying to find the words she needed to ease the tension. ‘John, before you eat, we have to talk. Can we go somewhere for a moment?’ His eyes narrowed and his mouth thinned. She saw him force a smile.
‘All right - but it will have to be quick - I’ve got to leave in thirty minutes and I haven’t eaten.’
He turned and led the way back down the passage but instead of going into the sitting-room he opened the door into a large wood panelled room that the Thorogoods only used for formal occasions. He wasn’t going to make this easy for her.
He didn’t hold the door open, just strode in leaving her to follow. The overstuffed chintz furniture with well-plumped cushions and matching poufs had obviously not been used for months. The dust was thick on the various wooden surfaces and the mantelpiece.
She closed the door and crossed to stand behind him as he glared out over the walled rose garden, his shoulders rigid, his back firmly to her.
‘John, please look at me. I don’t want you to go away like this.’ He didn’t turn; gave no sign he’d even heard her. Tentatively she reached out and touched his arm; he shrugged her off.
‘For goodness sake, John, don’t be so childish. I overreacted when you kissed me and I’m sorry, but you shouldn’t have sprung it on me like that, and in public in front of those three WRVS cronies of my mother’s. What were you thinking of?’
These words finally achieved her objective and he slowly turned, a rueful smile hovering around his lips. ‘I’m sorry too, Babs. It was stupid of me, but I’ve wanted to kiss you for so long and I just couldn’t help myself.’
She tilted her head, considering his reply. ‘Well, you can try again now if you want, I promise I won’t scream or run away. I’m quite ready.’
He stepped closer and gently brushed away a strand of hair from her cheek. ‘That’s the problem, sweetheart, can’t you see?’
Puzzled, she shook her head. ‘See what? You want to kiss me and I say you can. I can’t see any problems there.’
‘I shouldn’t have to ask you, Babs. If you felt the same way about me you’d be here, right this minute, in my arms. I wouldn’t have to say.’
She saw the sadness in his eyes as he spoke and finally understood. ‘John! I never realised you felt like that. I thought we were just good friends. Why didn’t you say something, do something, before this?’
‘Would it have made any difference? I love you, Babs, you’re only fond of me, and it’s just not enough.’
She felt tears seeping from the corner of her eyes and brushed them aside angrily. ‘I could learn to love you, John. What are we talking about, I do love you; in fact I love you more than any other living soul. Surely that’s enough?’
He rubbed away her tears with his thumbs. ‘No, darling, it isn’t. I’m in love with you, that’s quite different and I wouldn’t dream of forcing you into a relationship you’re not ready for.’
She ducked her head and sniffed, recognizing that she was losing her dearest friend and didn’t know how to prevent it. What did he want from her? She loved him; she could learn to love his kisses if it meant she wouldn’t lose him. She came to decision.
Allowing no time for him to retreat, or for her to change her mind, she jumped forward, flinging her arms around his neck. His arms shot out, gripping her waist, more to steady himself than to reciprocate her gesture. But she tipped her face to receive his kiss. She stared at him and he couldn’t resist her appeal.
John covered her mouth with his own and this time she didn’t shy away. To his delight she pressed closer and shyly moved her lips against his. He felt his groin tighten and a surge of heat coloured his cheeks. Had he been mistaken? Did she return his love and it was only her inexperience that had caused her reaction?
He tightened his hold, revelling in her softness, the feel of her breasts against his chest. He ran the tip of his tongue across her lips hoping she might open them and allow him access. Instead she stiffened and he knew he’d frightened her. Reluctantly he drew back, relaxing his hold on her arms. He scanned her face, searching for signs of distress.
She gazed back, her mouth slightly swollen, her eyes glittering with emotion. Then she smiled and his heart turned over. God! How he loved this girl - he would gladly die for her. A flicker of fear ran through him as he realised he might very well have to.
‘Darling, tell me, was that better? I didn’t scare you this time?’
‘It was lovely, John. I think I’m getting the hang of this kissing lark. Do we have the time to do it again?’
His laugh ricocheted round the chilly room. ‘Idiot girl! We have the rest of our lives to perfect the art.’ His face sobered and impulsively he dropped to one knee. ‘Babs, I love you, say you will be my girl, marry me when all this is over?’
‘Marry you? You mean get engaged before you leave? But don’t you have to ask my mother and stepfather’s permission or something?’
This wasn’t quite the answer he’d been hoping for, but then Babs was ever the practical one, not a romantic bone in her body. ‘I don’t think I have time to speak to him before I go, but I promise I’ll write to Mr Evans and ask him formally. You still haven’t answered my question, will you agree to marry me, be my fiancée?’
She didn’t answer and he felt his happiness slipping away. His throat constricted and he scrambled awkwardly to his feet, keeping his head down to cover his distress. ‘Doesn’t matter, Babs, it’s silly idea, ignore me, I got carried away.’
‘I will get engaged you, of course I will. It wasn’t that I was worrying about. I really must get away from here, will being engaged mean I can’t join the Land Army and that I have to stay at home and join the WRVS? I’m worried they might change their minds about letting me join up.’
Relief flooded through him, he should have realised how important getting away from her unloving parents was. ‘Then we won’t mention it to them, but I’d like to tell my parents, if you don’t mind? They’ll keep our secret, don’t worry.’
‘We must go and give them the good news, but kiss me again, it might be months before we see each other like this.’
He opened his arms and she walked in. For a blissful five minutes he taught her how to open her mouth, how to deepen the kiss, get even more pleasure from it. Neither heard the first knock. It was not until it was repeated a third time that John looked up.
‘Darling, that’s enough, I think Mum and Dad are reminding us I have to leave and I still haven’t eaten my lunch.’
Her face crumpled. ‘Not yet. It can’t be time already?’
‘It’s nearly two o’clock and my train leaves at quarter past three.’ He pulled her close, keeping his left arm tight around her waist before he gave permission for his parents to enter. ‘Come in, Mum and Dad. We have something to tell you.’
John refused to allow anyone to accompany him to the station, instead Barbara was forced to watch him drive away whilst blinking back her tears.
‘Come inside, Babs dear, we need another cuppa. I can’t say how pleased Bill and I are about your news. I know you’re still young, but there’s not going to be a wedding for a while, is there?’
Barbara wiped her eyes. ‘No, we’ve decided to wait until the war’s over. Hopefully it won’t last more than a year.’
‘I should hope not, and that devil Hitler needs shooting, maybe someone will do it for us before too many of our boys are killed.’
Barbara sat down, not sure how she felt. She had been denying for so long that she felt anything other than affection, now she couldn’t understand how she found herself engaged to him. Her mother would have a field day if she found out. The wedding would be planned, the dress bought, before there was time to breathe.
Her lips curved as she remembered John’s expression when she’d agreed to marry him. He’d almost glowed with happiness. Yes, she’d done the right thing. And returning his kisses hadn’t been as hard as she’d expected, in fact, if she was honest, she’d quite enjoyed them. And it was a year or more before their engagement would become official and by then a lot could have happened. She might even have fallen in love with him and want to go ahead with the wedding after all.
She jumped as another mug of tea appeared in front of her. ‘Here you are, love, drink up, you looked so sad just then. You mustn’t worry, your John will come back safely.’
‘I hope so. Do you mind if we don’t talk about him anymore? I’m finding it too hard.’
‘Sure you are, my love. We didn’t finish our chat about your mother, did we?’ She sat down beside her. ‘Are you going to ask about your grandparents when you get home?’
‘I certainly am. If there’s the remotest chance I have to stay at home to serve in the Land Army for the first year, I’m not going to risk it.’
‘What will you say to her?’
‘I’ve no idea. I’ll have to see how she is first. I might just ask her outright. But what if she refuses to tell me anything? I don’t know what I’ll do then. And she’ll want to know why I’ve not signed up yet.’
‘Tell her you’re sending off for the forms, that should keep her happy for a bit.’
A grandfather clock in the hall struck three times. ‘I must get going, it’ll be dark soon. I don’t intend to gallop all the way back, poor Silver would be horrified if I asked her to do it twice in one day. I have to get the boys’ tea, I daren’t be late for that.’
Old Tom helped her tack up and held the mare whilst she mounted. ‘Take care, miss, there’s a nasty fog coming in from the sea. You’d best go by the lanes, just in case.’
She looked across to the south and could see nothing but greyness. ‘Good grief, that’s come up quickly. Thanks for looking after Silver.’
There was too much time to think as she walked and trotted to Crabapple Cottage. She hated deceiving John, they had always been honest with each other, but she had no choice. She couldn’t allow him to go away to fight, to risk his life in the air, believing the girl he loved didn’t love him back.
All the posters said that everyone had to do their bit. It was her first contribution to the war effort, sending one pilot off to fight in a happy, positive frame of mind. If she had to marry John one day, would that be so bad? Loving someone was almost as good as being in love.
It was dark by the time she dismounted in the stable yard. The blackout regulations made untacking Silver difficult, but not impossible. However, it was five before she was washed and changed back into her slacks and jumper. She should have started cooking tea half an hour ago. She prayed her mother hadn’t noticed the time and the boys hadn’t reminded her.
She slipped in the back door hoping to get into the kitchen and start preparing the meal before she was discovered. In the dark she groped for the light switch. As she clicked it on her mother appeared at the kitchen door.
‘Well, young lady, and where have you been all day? Hiding from me I expect.’
Barbara’s mouth opened and closed. What was she talking about? Then she remembered the three ladies in the Copper Kettle and shrunk back against the door, bracing herself, whilst desperately searching for the door-knob, praying she would be able to open it.
Her mother, her narrow face twisted with hate, was approaching too fast. Barbara’s fingers closed round the knob and she spun, pulling the door open. Too late. A vicious hand grabbed her hair and she was hauled backwards.
‘You little slut! You’re a disgrace, no better than your father.’ These words were punctuated by a fuselage of open handed slaps and punches. Barbara crouched on the floor, attempting, unsuccessfully, to ward off the blows.
‘Mummy, Mummy, stop it, don’t hurt Babs. Please don’t hurt her anymore.’ Tom’s scream echoed down the corridor and her mother’s rage, as always, vanished as suddenly as it had come. ‘Inside, Thomas, I’m coming now.’ She turned and followed her son, switching off the light as she went into the kitchen, leaving Barbara alone in the dark, her head bowed, too hurt, and angry too move.
Genre – Historical fiction
Rating – PG