Friday 6 January 2017

An old acquaintance

Sharon Phillips 

port and lemon

‘You know what they say about people that talks to theirselves, Mrs Pearce? Hetty looked around, her face pink at having been caught thinking aloud.
‘I’ve never been one to care about what they say, whoever they might be,’ she said, heaving herself upright so that she could look the man in the eyes, ’and I’d like to know what it’s to do with you. And who you think you are, talking to a respectable woman unasked and unwanted.’  There was something about the man’s self-assurance that affronted her. And then there was the set of his shoulders: now she’d had a good look at him, his stance seemed to remind her of somebody.
‘Your new neighbour, Mrs Pearce. And an old acquaintance, at that. I should have thought you’d have been a bit more welcoming, seeing as it’s going on for thirty years since we last met. And how friendly-like we used to be, back when you was skinny little Hetty White. I don’t suppose you thought you’d see me again, did you?’  Hetty felt sweat prickle between her shoulder blades. She turned her back on the man and picked up the aish stone she’d been using to whiten her doorstep.
‘I’ve got no idea who you are, Mr whatever your name is,’ she said and shut her front door behind her.

Worrying wouldn’t get her work done. Hetty carried her mangle and tub of washing into the back yard and started guiding wet linen through the mangle with one hand and turning its handle with the other. Skinny, he’d called her, skinny Hetty White. Cheeky so and so. Hetty could feel the loose flesh on her underarm jiggle as she turned the handle faster. Nobody would ever call her skinny these days, that was for sure, least of all Davey Comben. Oh, she knew his name well enough; recognised the boy, not just in the set of the man’s shoulders but in the laugh as she closed her door. 
Should have known he’d be back,’ she thought. He’d been sent off a couple of months after what happened. Disowned by his family on account of it, too. How scared she’d been at the thought of being shown up. How relieved she’d been once he was gone. Over the years she’d as good as forgotten there was anything to worry about.
Hetty flinched as she heard the neighbouring cottage’s back door open. Here he was, not just back on the island but living next door. Water dripped from her red arms as she waited and listened to his slow tread in the next yard. A thud as he set something down in the outhouse. Then nothing. She wouldn’t look round, in case he was nosing over the wall at her. She wouldn’t give him that satisfaction.
‘Hoping I wouldn’t notice you crouched down there, Mrs Pearce? Or perhaps I’ll call you Hetty, seeing as we’re such old friends. That boy of yours - take after his father, does he?’ 
Hetty stayed where she was long after Davey’s back door had banged shut. The freshening wind chilled her arms and teased strands of her hair out of its tight bun; some of them stuck to her face. Now and then she bent her neck and raised her right arm as she struggled to dry her tears on sleeves that had been rolled up to the elbow. It was only when a herring gull landed on the mangle and cackled to the late-fledged chick flapping overhead that she struggled to her feet and started to fold what little linen she had mangled. Too blowy to hang it out today, Hetty decided. Tomorrow would have to do. But she’d not put off having a word with her husband. 

Gulls coasted above the small cemetery on the hillside, their white bellies bright against the grey sky. Hetty stared out over Lyme Bay, its dark water choppy and slubbed white with foam. She’d heard tell that it was going to blow a gale that night and it looked as if others had too: there were black figures moving to and fro all along the long arc of the beach. Like as not fishermen pulling their lerrets to safety. What with the spring tide, Hetty knew the fishermen’s cottages in the lee of Chesil Beach would get flooded if the wind didn’t turn. Her husband had always said the fishermen were blessed fools for living down there in the first place.
She turned to face his grave. James Pearce, born 1865, died 1915. Dead ten year now, took by the influenza that second winter of the Great War. A sensible, steady man he’d been. She hadn’t appreciated that to begin with, not when she was a giddy girl, married off in haste to a man of her father’s choosing. Her father had been a salvationist. Couldn’t bear the shame of his unwed daughter being in the family way and he knew that Jim had a fancy for Hetty in spite of him being fifteen year older than her, so that was that: they were married before there was so much as a curve to her belly. It had been easy enough to pass the baby off as premature, funny little thing that he was back then.
‘What am I going to do, Jim? Davey Comben, he’s back. Living next door, too. He’s come after me for what I said, I swear he has. What if he tells our Thomas you’re not his dad, just to get his own back on me? It’ll break our Thomas’s heart to hear that. And then there’s the lies I told. Is he going to want anything to do with me, once he knows I’m a tart and a liar?’
Hetty had hoped that there would be a comfort in talking to Jim, as if his kindness could steady her from beyond the grave. Jim would have stood by her. He had done, thirty years before, when she was a young girl in the family way, and he’d talked sense into her five years after that, when she’d joined the Sally Army and wanted to admit to her wrongdoing. She wanted to cleanse her soul, she'd told Jim.
‘What d’you want to go and do that for?’ he’d said, ‘Davey blimmin' Comben was never anything but trouble. You ask me, better for everybody if he stays where he is.’ She hadn’t questioned his judgement. Easier not to, all round. Then the years had taken the edge off her shame and she’d not so much forgotten as tucked away the thought of what she’d done.
Lights started to come on down in the harbour. As she began to leave, Hetty hesitated then turned to the opposite end of the cemetery and stopped at a grave two decades older than her husband’s. She’d visited, to begin with, at times so quiet she knew she would go unnoticed, but her visits had tailed off once little Thomas had been born. ‘Got out of the habit,’ she thought, ‘that’s all.’ But it was a shame to see it so overgrown that you couldn't read Tom's name.
Hetty wondered what Tom would think if he could see her now, the legs he’d liked so much gone all puffy. She knew they wouldn’t have ever grown old together. Back then, the artists would flock here in the summer and flit off again in the winter; Tom had already gone fidgety, their last couple of days. Ready to be off. Not that she blamed him, now; they’d had a bit of fun together, that was all it was to her, and she might not have had young Thomas otherwise. It was Davey Comben that Hetty blamed. Jim had been right, she told herself. Davey never was any good and now he was out of prison and like as not about to tell all of Fortuneswell that her son was a bastard. She’d have to go and talk to him. She might be able to make him see that the boy didn’t need to suffer.

There were no lights on in Davey’s cottage and no response to Hetty’s knock. She knocked again, sharper this time. Still nothing. Mouth dry and breath fast and shallow, Hetty stepped to the side and peered in through the window. 
‘Oh,’ she said. There he was, sitting in the dark. Impatient to get it over with, she rapped on the pane. As Davey turned towards the sudden noise, Hetty saw his face in the moonlight that shone in through the uncurtained window and caught her breath. Strange, him sitting there in the dark like that, she thought, as she rapped again.
‘Mr Comben,’ she called, ‘is that you?’ and cursed herself at the stupidity of the question, when there he was right in front of her. How old he looked as he struggled up from the chair. Legs as stiff as hers. Stiffer, after all those years hard labour. She wondered what it had been like, going into prison as a young man who’d had all the world before him. 
‘I suppose you’d best come in, Mrs Pearce. That boy of yours’ll wonder what’s up if he sees you stood there when he comes home from work.’
Hetty looked around at the bare living room as Davey lit the lamp. Two old wooden chairs, that was all the furniture he had. ‘Hardly to be expected he’d have much, just out of prison,’ she thought, bracing herself against feeling sympathy for him. She started in alarm as  the window frame rattled in a sudden gust of wind.
‘We’ve got things to talk about, Mr Comben,’ said Hetty, ‘and it’s best we got it over and done with.’
‘Over and done with, Mrs Pearce?’ Davey replied, ‘I’m in no doubt you’d like to see it over and done with so you can carry on all respectable. Butter wouldn’t melt in your mouth, would it? You haven’t changed, Hetty White, not one bit. Always did want to make out you were better than you were. I’ll never forget the look on your face when I found you and that artist boy rolling around on those old fishing nets. Never thought you’d get caught, did you? Then there I was, standing there laughing at the pair of you as you tried to cover yourselves. And there was you, shouting at the lad as he ran away over the beach, doing his trousers up as he went. Not much of a man, running away like that, was he?’
‘Was you trying to show off how much of a man you was, then? Chasing him off over the beach when the tide was coming up? Then threatening you’d tell all Fortuneswell I’d been with him? Once I heard how his poor body had been washed up all battered by the sea, I had to take my chance.’
‘No more than you deserved for going with a kimberlin, my girl. You should have stuck to the Portland lads. You should have been nice to me, like I wanted.’
Hetty looked out through the window at the clouds scudding across the moon. ’Don’t make no odds his father didn’t come from Portland, the boy don’t deserve to have shame brought on him. Let him be.’
‘Depends which way you look at it, don’t it? Perhaps he deserves to know what his mother’s really like. Perhaps I deserves to have some sort of family life. Nobody believed I was innocent then and I don’t suppose they will now. But it’s time you were a little bit nicer to me, Hetty.’

The wind had dropped; high tide had come just short of the top of the beach. The fishermen’s cottages were safe. Hetty stood outside her cottage and tried to steady herself. She could see light shining where Thomas hadn't pulled the curtains properly: he always was careless about that sort of thing. She imagined him sitting by the fire. Perhaps he’d have a few more sketches to show her, or some cartoons: he liked to make her laugh by drawing cartoons of the other people in the office he worked in, up in Dorchester. How glad Hetty had been to have him back home safe and sound after the war, and her only a few years a widow at the time. She’d put him off his plans for art school. Next year, she’d say, next year. He was too kind to go against her wishes and now seven years had passed, with his drawing squeezed into lunchtimes and weekends.
She thought of the seagull and its ungainly chick, still not fully fledged in late October. Hetty knew that she had been wrong to keep Thomas at home with her, year after year. It was time to let him decide his own future.

About the author

Sharon retired in 2015 from a career in education and decided to try her hand at writing stories and poems, something she hadn’t done since she was a teenager. She lives in Dorset with her husband, two dogs and two cats.

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