Authors: Ruth Hamilton
About the Book
Laura Starling, now wealthy and successful, has survived a bitter past. She fled from a tyrannical mother into the clutches of a sadistic man. She endured poverty, fear and pain. Then along came Ben Starling, older, wiser, who smoothed her path and gave her love and security.
But now Ben has become a stranger who has slipped beyond her reach. As her stability threatens to disintegrate once more, a thin, waif-like girl from Liverpool thrusts her way into Laura’s life – a girl who is to prove a link with the past. But no one can help Laura make the decisions that will alter the course of her existence. As the September starlings gather, Laura realises she must take courage and forge her own future.
Many thanks to:
Michael & David
Diane & Meg
Danielle & Kevin
Irene Cunningham, who made house-moving almost bearable
The Reverend Geoffrey Garner, Anglican Rector of St Mary’s, Bow, in London, who certainly knows more about the Catholic saints than I do.
There are two real people in this book – Danielle McGregor and Kevin McCann. I ‘stood in’ for Laura Starling and asked the questions Laura might have asked. I thank Kevin for his poetry, especially for ‘The Trouble with Wings’, and Danielle for allowing me to read her work on Sachsenhausen. Without the support of people like these two, writing would not be such a joy.
The water dances, seems lighter than the soft breath of air that fans my cheek, brighter than the lofty dome of sky. I bite my lip, force back a tide of emotion too mixed to be identified. The fear has gone, has left me cold and bare. The fear has been my closest companion for many months and I cannot imagine how I shall live without its presence. Like an old toothache, it became my familiar, a nagging, complaining escort.
The village of Barr Bridge is smaller, shabbier than the image I brought with me this morning. When I was ten, the bridge across this stream was wider, stronger, a substantial part of my existence. Now, my eyes reach high above the pitted and corroded rails, while two adult strides can almost cover the meagre span. Middle age has come to me and I have carried it to a place that was always old. Yes, I have come here to remember, to collect my thoughts.
I fell in once. We were throwing things over the sides, through the bars and into the happy brook. It still giggles and gurgles, prances hysterically over time-slicked stones, celebrates its own prettiness as it splashes and splits into prisms of pure joy. For what reason? How brief its self-laudatory pleasure will be! There is water in my eyes, a wetness whose salt pricks like onion-tears. Do I feel pity for this tiny ribbon of stream, do I mourn already for the reach it will become as it makes its merry way to town?
Anne called to me. ‘You’ll fall in, Laura!’
‘I don’t care.’ And I really didn’t care. In the first decade of a child’s life, safety does not sit high on the agenda. ‘My paper boat will get through before yours
does,’ was my rash response. I hung from the bridge in the manner of a trapeze clown who purposely courts disaster so that an audience might be amused. It was a long way down and I took an age to meet the water. The cold thrill of it snatched my breath away, but the spasm of terror that was almost pleasurable was wrenched from me and I felt no more. She dragged me out, heaved my waterlogged body up among the reeds. I was wakening, becoming aware, yet she screamed wonderfully at the sight of my torn and bleeding forehead.
She loved me, loves me still, continues to worry about her wayward cousin. My hand raises itself until it finds the scar, a small and crescent-shaped blemish that hides coyly beneath the hairline. Anne, too, has a scar, larger than mine, a silver blemish on her lovely face. Her mark was made by a man whose name I seek to forget, though it is hard to erase from memory the creature who shaped my young adult life.
I am here for a reason, have followed my instincts to this bridge. Did I come just to remember a summer day in 1950? Do I want to hear my mother’s voice again? ‘You’ve ruined that frock,’ she snapped. There were sutures in her daughter’s face, yet she worried more about ripped stitches in two yards of gingham. And yes, the socks were new and spoilt.
A flash of silver catches my eye as a small fish is swept along towards its doom. The stream bustles on, displays that familiar, manic glee as it plumes over the sloping bed to dash thoughtlessly into the future. Just as I did. This carefree babble knows nothing of its fate, is blissfully unaware of its destination. If it knew what was in store, would it defy nature and gravity, would it stop and turn back? I didn’t. I just kept going, was as stubborn and stupid as Barr Brook. Down there, in the town of Bolton, the stream’s beauty will die, turning first to pewter, then to a stinking foam of bleach and effluent. Won’t it? Does it happen, is there a bleachworks, is cotton still spun here in 1992?
I had no more sense than this blind waterway. Although I could reason, could listen to advice, I bumbled and blundered along into my own premature decay. With this place, I have an affinity.
I turn and look at the village, just one street of cottages with an ‘everything’ shop at its centre and a pub at the base of the slope. Like the stream, Barr Bridge totters down the hill, each house leaning on its neighbour, the whole lot depending for support on the Black Horse. The Black Horse has not stood still, though. It has moved on, has become an eating place for Sunday families. There is tarmac at the back, a grey surface sectioned by thick white lines where cars can be stabled to recover after the climb from town. Rustic tables and benches front the pub, red and white umbrellas advertise vermouth, spread their gores above the seating area. Progress. They probably have prawn cocktails, chicken-in-a-basket, Black Forest gateau, foreign cheeses. There’ll be quiz nights, folk music groups, theme parties.
I walk across the cobbles, stand on the narrow pavement. These flags have shrunk – I recall that they were huge and uneven. Steps punctuate the path, but they are no longer steep. I lived here through my teenage years, when I was fully grown, returned as a mother for temporary stays, yet I still see this village with the vision of a child. It is true, then, that we remember in patches, that our minds leap about and settle where they will. Although I reached my present height at the age of fourteen, I keep Barr Bridge firmly in the ‘childhood’ compartment of my memory.
The inner doors of the Black Horse have not been renewed. The brewery has kept the coloured glass, though one small section has been repaired, replaced by a pane of thick, plain frost. Twin brass handles do not shine, but they are comfortingly familiar. I will hold this in my mind, because the rest of the place will be altered past recognition.
There is a deep-piled carpet of red and gold stretching
its garish opulence right up to the bar. I smile. We used to run in here for dares, used to take pennies from evening domino players whose days were spent tilling the land and tending animals. They never told our mothers, never brought trouble on our heads. Anne and I were probably a part of their fun, something to take minds off a difficult calving or a broken fence.
The bar is the same, chunky, solid, hewn from a dark red wood that boasts a beeswax sheen. A small blackboard at one side announces PUB GRUB, and a glass case houses sandwiches, pork pies, pasties, a few ploughman’s lunches. The tables are various, some square, some circular. A huge painting of a black horse occupies the upper half of a wall, the animal’s stance reminiscent of an advertisement for one of the bigger banks.
The place is empty save for one very small old lady who crouches over a glass of flat amber fluid, possibly cider. The landlord emerges from a door marked PRIVATE. ‘Can I help you?’ he asks. He is young, agile, wears tracksuit bottoms and colourful training shoes. Once behind the bar, he is smart in the white polo-necked jersey, displays manicured nails and two gold rings. ‘A tomato juice,’ I answer finally. Who will come and eat all his food? The unmistakeable smell of Lancashire hotpot has followed him through from the PRIVATE rooms. ‘And a cheese sandwich,’ I add, worrying about his profits.
He serves me, is deft with the steel tongs as he removes my food from the case. ‘One pound forty,’ he states dispassionately. No need to concern myself about him, then. It’s a small sandwich with a large mark-up, so he’ll doubtless survive. ‘Anything else?’ His mouth tweaks, promises a smile, does not deliver.
‘No, thank you.’ I take plate, glass and change, decide on a whim to linger. Each New Year, I promise myself that there will be no more whims, yet I continue erratic, impulsive. ‘I used to live here.’ Why am I talking to this sullen young man? ‘My father was John McNally.’
At last, a stiff and rather professional smile. He reaches out a hand, waits until I have deposited my lunch on the counter. The grip is firm. My sapphire and diamond cluster has twisted, cuts into an inch of the adjacent finger. I struggle against the urge to flinch and draw away. ‘Charles Roe.’ His tone is clipped, especially when he spits out the ‘Charles’. I would wager a small fortune that few have dared to call this man Charlie. ‘Your father did Barr Bridge a lot of good, Mrs … er …’
‘Starling. Laura Starling.’ I win back my hand, feel the blood as it stings its way back into crushed digits. ‘I’ve just come to have a look at the old place.’
The arms fold themselves, while the dark head nods pensively. ‘This village would have died off but for McNally’s. Do you have anything to do with McNally’s these days?’
‘No. My mother is the major shareholder.’
He whistles. ‘She’ll be worth a bob or two, then.’
I am used to Lancashire bluntness, but this man is more calculating than the usual Bolton lad. ‘I wouldn’t know.’
He is staring at me, the cold marble gaze seeming to cut my soul. Barr Bridge remembers me, then, has engraved me into its folklore. I was the one who ran away, who turned her back on a comfortable life, disappointed her mother, broke her father’s heart … ‘Where are you living these days?’
He leans closer. ‘Your mam?’
‘She lives in Crosby too.’
Snow-white incisors bite the lower lip for a split second. ‘Does she live with—’
‘No. She has a retirement apartment.’ He is annoying me. I should not have begun this conversation, am beginning to lose patience with myself. ‘I’ll sit down now.’
My table faces the rear of the building. The geriatric car I have named Elsie is cooling off just outside the back door – I
can see her right-hand headlight fixed on me like another calculating stare. To the right of the main bar, a large extension of glass and wood crawls further down the hill. A NO SMOKING sign sits over the entrance to this pine-clad dining area. The cloths are white and crisp. Some quiet music escapes from the smokeless zone, creeps across the bar and into my ears. It is ‘nothing’ music, the sort that lulls its victims into a comatose state. With their senses dulled to the point of paralysis, the Black Horse customers no doubt pay inflated prices without too much thought.