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Authors: Sheelagh Kelly

Keepsake

BOOK: Keepsake
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The Keepsake
Sheelagh Kelly

For my dear daughter, Gayle.

Epilogue

Neither woman felt in the mood for a party. It was impossible to concentrate on the trivia of bunting and buns for the Peace Celebrations after four, almost five gruelling years of shortages, the agonising worry over one’s husband, one’s son, yet Etta and Aggie had decided they should make some sort of effort for the children’s sake. Dressed in black, each was silent, going over the business of sandwich-making automatically, scraping knives across bread, their thoughts otherwise engaged by memories. The room was silent, its only other occupant fast asleep in his fireside chair, pipe on chest, his nose and cheeks burnt bright red after an accidental nap under a blazing sun.

‘Marty used to like these when he was a boy,’ murmured Aggie, even in her best attire looking haggard as she stacked another round of condensed milk sandwiches on the plate with its paper-lace doily. ‘Of course, that was before he developed expensive tastes. Nothing was ever good enough for him after that.’

Etta gave an absent smile, deep in her own thoughts as she sawed and sliced, contributing to the pyramid of sandwiches. It seemed like a lifetime ago that, after being let out of prison with all charges dropped, she had staggered back into this kitchen, thrown herself into Aggie’s arms and sobbed out her misery, to be just as dramatically assuaged by a letter which told of the petition to the Commander in
Chief, organised by her mother, her meek little mother who had never uttered a defiant word in her life but had rallied her influential friends to save her daughter’s husband. Whether this had swayed Sir John French’s decision one could not say, but, with a telegram to confirm the reprieve, it had not mattered. For whatever reason, Marty had been spared execution. Had Etta but known it then, that even in such wondrous moment of relief there would be three more years to suffer…

‘God!’ An agitated Aggie paused abruptly in her task to rest her hands on the table and to shake her head, her face grim. ‘I know I said I wasn’t going to mention it and spoil the children’s party, but I don’t think I’ll ever get over the shame. That boy…’

Etta paused too, looked at her sympathetically and parted her lips to speak, but her mother-in-law announced, ‘No, don’t say a word! I don’t even want to think about it, not today.’ And she got on with her frivolous chore.

‘Any more plates, Granny Lanny?’ fourteen-year-old Celia tripped in to ask.

‘I’ll give you Granny Lanny!’

The young woman laughed coquettishly, and, carrying the plates that were thrust at her, returned to the tables that had been set up in the street, from where others’ happy laughter could be heard.

‘I suppose we’d better join the party then,’ sighed Aggie, smoothing her grey hair and casting a harassed glance at Red still asleep in his fireside chair, then at the empty one opposite. ‘Much as I don’t feel like it. Seems disrespectful to be kicking up our heels just after a wake.’

Etta sanctioned the need for them both to have fun. ‘I don’t think anyone would begrudge us after the hardship we’ve been through.’

Red woke up then with a grunt, cast his glowing face about him in mild surprise, before picking his pipe off his chest and puffing it back to life.

‘I should buy you a lace waistcoat,’ his wife chided him sourly. ‘’Twould save you the trouble of burning the holes in it.’

Red gave a philosophical brush at his chest. ‘Have I missed the party?’

‘No, we’re still waiting on himself,’ replied his wife, looking somewhat aggrieved.

All looked round as the back door opened.

‘Oh, here you are at last,’ chided Aggie. ‘I thought I’d have to come and dig you out.’

‘I can’t help it, it’s what you do go feeding me!’ A grumbling Uncle Mal shuffled in at the speed of a tortoise, his twig-like hand upon a stick, having to summon help from Etta in negotiating the shallow step up from the scullery.

‘My feelings exactly!’ A younger male head poked itself round a different door and a voice chipped in, ‘Is there nothing more interesting to scoff? Christ, I was stuck on condensed milk and bully beef for four years – this is meant to be a celebration, ye know, Ma.’

A grossly indignant Aggie put her hands on her hips and beheld Etta. ‘Didn’t I tell you he always wants what he can’t damn-well have?’ Feigning violence, a sparkle in her eye, she advanced on her grinning son.

‘Call her off, Da!’ begged Marty, but at the first sign of laughter Red fell instantly asleep, awaking every few seconds to issue a brief spurt of amusement before falling asleep again and again and again. ‘I was only asking, Ma!’ Marty yelped.

‘And I’m only telling!’ She smote and jabbed him. ‘I haven’t the money to waste on you after emptying my purse on the wake!’

‘Nobody said you had to,’ objected her son, laughingly trying to fend her off, bending this way and that to avoid her flailing hands.

Aggie pressed forth the mock attack, poked and prodded him till he shrieked for mercy in a boyish falsetto, whilst
her blue eyes sparkled with delight at having him home. ‘I’m damned if I’m having your Aunt Joan, God rest her, sitting up there in her heavenly abode complaining to Uncle John that I didn’t give them the very best send-off!’

‘So we have to make do with a crummy shindig!’ taunted Marty, green eyes twinkling as, having left off, his mother now came back to re-launch the assault. ‘Ah, don’t just stand there, Ett, save me, save me!’ And for the benefit of his amused audience that now included little William, who had just come in and joined the game by helping Granny smack Father, he danced this way and that to avoid her blows.

‘I shan’t lift a finger,’ announced Etta loftily, maintaining a steadying hold of Uncle Mal’s arm. ‘I thoroughly agree with your mother.’

‘Oh, fine wife you turned out to be!’ accused Marty, finally allowed to escape from Aggie’s clutches, but his eyes were warm as they locked with Etta’s dark brown ones. And for a moment they were to remain like this, each sharing the same thought, silently wondering what it had all been for, those years of suffering, when here they were in this little house as if he had never been away? Was Marty returned to a better world? A world fit for heroes? Different, certainly, but better? With all his heart he prayed so, not from any selfish desire for, unlike many, he had walked straight into a job that enabled him to rent a modest house, and so he didn’t have to rely on his parents, and could feel like a man. No, his prayer, his fervent hope, was that his less fortunate comrades had not been trodden and pounded into the French earth simply to add to its fertility…for a second the nightmarish memories that he had managed to suppress for today’s celebrations now came rushing back, the thunderous bang and whistle of artillery, the smell of burnt flesh, the pitiful cries of the dying that would ever reverberate…

But he fought them, for he was not dead, he was here,
alive, with his dear, brave wife and his beloved children and his parents and siblings and his brothers-in-law, all of whom had survived – few families could boast that – and here he would be, forever. Just in time – for Etta had gauged his flicker of despair causing her smile to falter – the warmth of contentment flooded back into his gaze, he and she composing their smiles as a more serious outpouring came from his mother, who undid her apron and tidied her hair for the party.

‘As if I haven’t enough expense with that blessed brother of yours rushing a wedding upon us – Holy Mother, I’ll never get over the shame, never!’ Aggie stopped in her tracks to press her cheeks in horror at the thought of Jimmy-Joe’s impending fatherhood. Then her eyes were all of a sudden directing fake malevolence at Marty again. ‘And I swore I wasn’t going to let it worry me today, and now you’ve gone and reminded me of it, thank you very much!’ And in an unstoppable attack she began to drive him towards the front door. ‘Out, out with ye now, and not another word of complaint – go and have a party in your own street if this one isn’t good enough for ye!’

‘It’s good enough!’ cried Marty, covering his head and backing away, trying not to trip over a giggling William. ‘Please don’t hit me, Ma, I’m begging ye!’

‘My God, he’ll have the –’ Red crashed into a few seconds of unconsciousness before finishing his sentence – ‘polis on us with his daft goings-on.’

‘Are we off then before all the food’s gone?’ croaked Uncle Mal.

A happy Etta shook her head laughingly, then slowly and patiently began to guide the frail nonagenarian towards the front door.

Managing to control his affliction, Red arose to shuffle after them, an expression of disbelief upon his burnt face. ‘’Tis a fine thing if you’ve only your belly to worry about, and you nudging your century!’ And to Etta, ‘If I’d known
he was going to live so long I’d never have taken the ould bugger in. I can’t believe he’s still walking round with this flu knocking people off right, left and centre, like poor Johnny and Joan.’

‘Neither can I,’ marvelled Etta, and to her charge, ‘Tell us your secret, Uncle Mal.’

With painful slowness, the old man cupped his ear with a bony, liver-spotted claw.

‘What’s your secret for a long life?’ she repeated in louder tone.

‘Keep breathing,’ said the ancient, with a mischievous grin.

And to fond laughter, the Lanegans moved out into the sunshine, to join in the Hope Street celebrations.

1

Marty Lanegan was skylarking his way along a corridor of the grandest hotel in York, lolloping like an ape for the entertainment of a workmate to have him double up in laughter, when his antics were stalled by a furious argument. Abandoning his audience, he paused to listen and to grin at the choice insults which jarred with this Edwardian elegance, that were hurled like clubs between father and daughter. He knew this to be the relationship for he had witnessed the arrival of the scowling but very handsome young lady and her papa late yesterday afternoon, and had opined to the rest of the staff that she looked a proper handful.

‘You mean you’d like a handful,’ the page had leered.

Well, that was no lie. She was the most stunning girl Marty had ever seen: hence his unusual keenness for work this morning. He was about to put his eye to the keyhole when the door opened, forcing him to leap back or be bullocked aside by the angry gentleman on the point of exit.

The boot boy sought to explain his proximity. ‘I’ve just come to check if there’s any shoes need cleaning, sir!’

This was met by suspicion, the man’s cane held at a threatening angle. ‘Somewhat late in the day for that, isn’t it?’ It was well after breakfast.

Marty’s reply displayed just the right blend of courtesy
and helpfulness, delivered with the faintest lilt of Irish brogue. ‘Some guests forget to leave them out, sir, so I make constant trips up here. I like to provide good service.’

‘If it was that good you’d be aware that you’ve already done ours,’ growled the man, who, with his bearded face, corpulent build and eyes that bulged with rage, was the spitting image of the King, though his manner was anything but royal. Ramming on his bowler and shoving the cane under his arm, he turned his back on the servant, locked the door and marched to the stairs, but not before both he and Marty heard the sound of a heavy object hitting wood.

Struggling to contain his mirth, the boot boy appeared to go obediently on his way. But a crafty glance over his shoulder told him that the other had descended and, upon hearing noisy sobs, he crept back to employ the keyhole. Maybe he could be the one to comfort her…

They were not the feeble kind of tears but loud wails interspersed with frustrated yelps and thuds, as if she were punching some substitute for the one who had angered her. He was still bent over trying to catch a glimpse of anything other than the bedroom wallpaper, when someone nipped his trim, uniformed buttock, shocking him upright.

The culprit stifled a giggle as her victim swivelled in dread. ‘What’re you up to, Bootsie?’

‘Ye daft mare!’ He scolded the chambermaid in a forced whisper, and then grabbed her to tussle and tickle her, chuckling good-naturedly. ‘I thought ’twas her daddy come back.’

Annoyed to learn that his attention was for another woman, Joanna’s laughter dissipated in a blunt Yorkshire response. ‘You lecher! Spying on that swanky lass – I might have known!’

‘I’m just checking she’s all right, that’s all!’ The tone was innocent, but the cheeky sparkle in Marty’s eyes showed otherwise. ‘They were going hammer and tongs at each other and then he left in a hurry and locked her in.’ Keeping
his voice low, and oblivious to Joanna’s jealousy, he shoved his cap to the back of his head and bent to the keyhole again. ‘Maybe he hit her – she’s still bawlin’.’

Smarting over his ignorance of her own feelings, Joanna hissed, ‘Why don’t you just knock and find out?’ And with that she rapped briskly on the door before hastening away with her trolley, leaving him to panic.

He was set to run but the occupant was already at the door, her crying stopped and her voice eager with enquiry. ‘Who’s there?’

Still unnerved by Joanna’s action, Marty gave rapid apology through the barrier. ‘Sorry, miss, I didn’t mean to distur—’

‘Don’t go!’ Her entreaty was swift but polite, its melodic tone permeating the wood to spellbind him. ‘Could you possibly help? My father’s gone out and taken the key in error. I’m locked in.’

Marty knew it was no error. He would be in deep trouble if he got involved in this. ‘I’m only the boots, Miss er –’ He broke off, not privy to her name. But her voice sounded lovely, stroked him persuasively as she begged again.

‘Oh please! Couldn’t you find a spare key and let me out?’

Wanting to assist, his face contorted with indecision, he glanced along the corridor to where a bad-tempered Joanna was darting in and out of a room changing the bed linen. She would have a key. Still, he dithered for a second, playing with his chin. Why had the girl’s father locked her in? It was too impertinent to ask, but he did not like the man who, gentlemanly attire or no, looked an arrogant brute. Thus decided, he straightened his cap and said, ‘Hang on, miss, I’ll just go see what I can do.’

Hurrying to accost the maid he explained the situation. ‘We have to help her, Jo.’

‘I don’t
have
to do anything!’ Edging her way past him to gather dirty linen, Joanna remained cross, white petticoats
frothing under the sober dress as she marched to and fro.

Marty tried to cajole sympathy, leaning his attractive head close to her plain one and nudging her arm suggestively. ‘I always took you for a kind soul. How would you feel if your da locked you in against your will? Bet you’d want me to come and rescue you.’

For once his rough-diamond charm was lost. Ignoring the smell of buttermilk soap, those kind eyes, the winning smile, Joanna condemned him as a faithless friend. ‘It’s not my dad, it’s hers, and we shouldn’t get involved unless we want to lose our jobs!’ She stamped off with her bundle of sheets.

Thwarted, Marty grimaced and returned to apologise to the prisoner. ‘Sorry, miss, I tried to get a key off the maid but she wouldn’t be involved.’

There came a snort of frustration that condemned him as useless and the sound of a body slumping to the carpet. Squinting through the keyhole he caught a wisp of dark hair against the backdrop of pastel wallpaper. ‘Maybe your father won’t be long.’

Her reply was dull. ‘He’ll be out all morning.’

Upon learning this, Marty relaxed somewhat to enjoy the romantic notion that he was helping a damsel in distress. He was intrigued to know why she had been locked in, and difference in status had not prevented him from flirting with female guests before, given the encouragement. Some ladies found him attractive, though heaven knew why; personally he saw a gypsy when he looked in the mirror, a face that lacked the finely chiselled features he himself admired, with eyes that were somewhere between grey and green. When he was happy they appeared green, when sad they were grey – that was, if one could see them under those heavy lids. His hair was of a nondescript colour too; one might be kind and call it brown but it was the insipid brown of dried winter undergrowth and its texture similarly wiry, so that whenever he removed his hat it sprang back into place like trampled
grass, no amount of oil able to control it. He disliked everything about his looks. Still, to his favour he had decent teeth and was taller than average, and he had learned that charm compensated for any other lack of attribute.

Leaning against the door, he voiced a bold and teasing statement. ‘Your father took the key on purpose, didn’t he?’

There was a pregnant pause, then the glint of an eye as she tried to assess her impudent Samaritan through the aperture.

Marty felt no need to apologise, but did offer an explanation as to how he had guessed. ‘I saw him leave. He seemed quite aggrieved.’

She fixed her glittering dark eye to his green one.

Concerned that he might have overstepped the mark, he added quickly. ‘I hung around ’cause I felt worried about you.’

‘Did you, really?’ She sounded grateful.

Encouraged, Marty prolonged the bizarre method of conversation. ‘It’s remiss of me to have to ask, miss, but could you tell me whom I have the pleasure of addressing?’

‘I’m Henrietta Ibbetson.’

When he did not automatically introduce himself in return, she prompted, ‘So, who are you?’

‘Oh, like I said, I’m only the boots, miss.’ The quality of her voice had him glued to the keyhole. If the hotel manager himself had come round the corner Marty could not have torn himself away.

‘You must have a name.’

‘I’m flattered you’re even interested, miss.’ Marty grinned to himself – that’s right, lay it on thick.

‘Why, naturally I am!’

‘Thank you, miss. It’s Martin Lanegan.’

‘Martin, I’d love to see you, but even with this unyielding timber between us I can tell by your voice that you’re a very kind person, very likeable.’

His belly tightened at the artlessly seductive tone.

‘And that’s why I feel confident in throwing myself upon your mercy.’

I’d like to throw myself on you, thought Marty, imagining the gorgeous creature on the other side of the door, but he said, throatily polite, ‘I’ll do what I can.’

‘Might you perhaps find a key at the reception desk?’

The lascivious thoughts vanished. He gasped at the very suggestion. ‘That’s more than my life’s worth, miss! If you’re not here when your father comes back –’

‘But I will be! I
swear
it. It’s not that I wish to run away, but that I don’t care to be caged like an animal.’

He endured mental argument, desperate to ingratiate himself but not so keen as to risk dismissal. ‘I know it’s none of my affair, Miss Ibbetson, but why did he lock you up?’

There was a slight pause whilst Henrietta wondered how much to divulge. He was, after all, just a lowly employee. But it was essential that she lure him to her side. How else was she to keep the arranged rendezvous with her beau at King’s Cross?

Keeping this latter part to herself, she injected her sigh with feeling and made a half-confession. ‘My father plans to marry me off to an individual of his choosing, a man I find utterly loathsome.’ Her tone endorsed this revulsion. ‘Two days ago I ran away to my aunt’s in London…’ It had been during her escapade that she had met a more promising match, one who, upon hearing her story, had vowed to help. She should have gone with him there and then but had thought it wiser to go to her aunt’s and to meet him in a few days’ time. ‘…but she betrayed me and Father came to take me home. We arrived too late in York to continue our journey so he booked us in here. He hasn’t let me out of his sight other than to sleep and to breakfast. He’s killing two birds with one stone by attending some business whilst in the city. We’re to catch the afternoon train home. At which point I shall be condemned.’
But if this dolt would only comply she could be well on her way to her assignation at King’s Cross before her father even returned. ‘I’d be eternally grateful, Martin, if you could find it in your heart to assist.’

Enthralled that his name had never sounded so wonderful than on these lips, Marty came alive to make a bold decision. ‘I’ll be quick as I can!’

A gleeful Henrietta gave herself a congratulatory squeeze.

It was no small task Marty had set himself, for the sentinel on the desk was as keen as Cerberus at guarding his post. Much subterfuge and the assistance of another colleague was required to lure him away and for the boot boy to make his daring foray, knowing that if he were caught with the key he would be sacked without reference. The reward, however, was immeasurable.

The brief preview he had had of Miss Ibbetson could not have prepared him for the full magnificence. Upon his excited entrance to the suite he was dealt a vision of pink candy-striped organdie, a tantalising glimpse of bare skin through a diaphanous sleeve, a figure as sumptuously uphol-stered as the room that was normally forbidden to him…Yet it was not any rich accoutrement that so enchanted. The eyes that had been but a glint through a keyhole now totally impaled him, transfixed him to the expensive carpet that his feet were not permitted to sully, as glittering and radiant as lighted coals in a face that brimmed with intel-ligence – even though at this minute she was gawping at him like some yokel.

Henrietta caught her breath. She had been poised, hat in hand, ready to flee, but upon seeing Martin there came a surge of every corpuscle in her veins, like a spring tide, which swept away all the repressive debris of her previous existence and brought her so overwhelmingly alive that she feared she might choke upon this ecstasy. All reason suspended, utterly immobile with shock, she let the hat fall,
unable to perform any task other than to stare at him, totally oblivious that her jaw was hanging open.

A brief awkwardness ensued, arising not from difference in rank but from the palpable desire that exuded from both, each embarrassed at having been caught so unawares.

Normally self-assured, Henrietta fought the constriction in her throat and tried to thank him for liberating her, but found herself stricken dumb. The way he was looking at her, his eyelids droopy as if on the verge of slumber, but the look within them tugging at her abdomen, igniting all manner of extraordinary feelings…

Marty noted that she seemed in no hurry to escape now; her eyes still adhered to his face. Something had occurred to change her mind. He could only hope that she felt the same thrilling emotions that bound him captive. What in God’s name was happening here?

Eventually breaking free of his trance, suddenly self-conscious under her probing gaze, only now did he think to whip off his cap before enquiring, ‘What will you do now, miss?’

Henrietta watched the masculine fingers remove the cap, the springy hair beneath, her eyes fixed to the sensual bow of his mouth though barely hearing the words it uttered, whilst her own murmured vaguely, ‘What?’ Then, suddenly aware she had been holding her breath, she exhaled on a note of laughter, a happy sound that rippled his belly with its exquisiteness. ‘Oh…I haven’t the slightest idea!’ Her plan abandoned, she had forgotten all about the one she had promised to meet, indeed could not even recall what he looked like – certainly not so desirable as this green-eyed young man before her. Oh, he was lovely.
Lovely!
Ignoring the uniform that labelled him minion, her gaze pored over him, constantly lured back to those eyes, which promised kindness yet at the same time danger.

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