By Rosamunde Pilcher
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 1995 Robin Pilcher, Fiona Pilcher, Mark Pilcher, and the Trustees of Rosamunde Pilcher's 1988 Trust
All rights reserved.
The Porthkerris Council School stood half-way up the steep hill which climbed from the heart of the little town to the empty moors which lay beyond. It was a solid Victorian edifice, built of granite blocks, and had three entrances, marked Boys, Girls, and Infants, a legacy from the days when segregation of the sexes was mandatory. It was surrounded by a Tarmac playground and a tall wrought-iron fence, and presented a fairly forbidding face to the world. But on this late afternoon in December, it stood fairly ablaze with light, and from its open doors streamed a flood of excited children, laden with boot-bags, book-bags, balloons on strings, and small paper bags filled with sweets. They emerged in small groups, jostling and giggling and uttering shrieks of cheerful abuse at each other, before finally dispersing and setting off for home.
The reason for the excitement was twofold. It was the end of the winter term, and there had been a school Christmas party. Singing games had been played, and relay races won, up and down the assembly hall, with bean bags to be snatched and delivered to the next person in the team. The children had danced Sir Roger de Coverley, to music thumped out on the tinny old school piano, and eaten a tea of splits and jam, saffron buns, and fizzy lemonade. Finally they had lined up and, one by one, had shaken Mr. Thomas, the headmaster, by the hand, wished him a Merry Christmas, and been given a bag of sweets.
It was a routine that was followed every year, but always happily anticipated and much enjoyed.
Gradually the noisy outflux of children was reduced to a trickle, the late-leavers, those delayed by a search for missing gloves or an abandoned shoe. Last of all, as the school clock chimed a quarter to five, there came, through the open door, two girls, Judith Dunbar and Heather Warren, both fourteen years old, both dressed in navy-blue coats and rubber boots, and with woollen hats pulled down over their ears. But that was as far as the resemblance went, for Judith was fair, with two stubby pigtails, freckles, and pale-blue eyes; while Heather had inherited her colouring from her father, and through him, back over the generations of ancestors, from some Spanish sailor, washed ashore on the Cornish coast after the destruction of the Armada. And so her skin was olive, her hair raven-black, and her eyes dark and bright as a pair of juicy raisins.
They were the last of the revellers to depart because Judith, who was leaving Porthkerris School forever, had had to say goodbye not only to Mr. Thomas but all the other teachers as well, and to Mrs. Trewartha, the school cook, and old Jimmy Richards, whose lowly tasks included stoking the school boiler and cleaning the outside lavatories.
But finally, there was nobody else to say goodbye to, and they were on their way, across the playground and through the gates. The overcast day had slipped early into darkness and a thin drizzle fell, shimmering against glowing street lamps. The street sloped down the hill, black and wet, pooled with reflected light. They began to walk, descending into the town. For a bit neither of them spoke. Then Judith sighed.
"Well," she said in final tones, "that's it."
"Must feel a bit funny, knowing you're not coming back again."
"Yes, it does. But the funniest bit is feeling sad. I never thought I'd feel sad to leave any school, but I do now."
"It's not going to be the same without you."
"It's not going to be the same without you, either. But you're lucky, because at least you've still got Elaine and Christine for friends. I've got to start all over, brand new, trying to find someone I like at Saint Ursula's. And I have to wear that uniform."
Heather's silence was sympathetic. The uniform was almost the worst of all. At Porthkerris, everybody wore their own clothes, and very cheerful they looked too, in different-coloured sweaters, and the girls with bright ribbons in their hair. But Saint Ursula's was a private school and archaically old-fashioned. The girls wore dark-green tweed overcoats and thick brown stockings, and dark-green hats that were guaranteed to make even the prettiest totally plain, so unbecoming were they. Saint Ursula's took day-girls as well as boarders, and these unfortunate creatures were much despised by Judith and Heather and their contemporaries at Porthkerris, and considered fair bait for teasing and torment should they be unlucky enough to travel on the same bus. It was depressing to contemplate Judith having to join the ranks of those wet, goody-goody creatures who thought themselves so grand.
But worst of all was the prospect of boarding. The Warrens were an intensely close family, and Heather could not imagine a worse fate than to be torn from her parents and her two older brothers, both as handsome and raven-haired as their father. At Porthkerris School, they had been notorious for their devilment and wickedness, but since moving on to the County School in Penzance, had been somewhat tamed by a terrifying headmaster, and been forced to settle down to their books and mend their ways. But still, they were the best fun in the world, and it was they who had taught Heather to swim and ride a bicycle and trawl for mackerel from their stubby wooden boat. And what fun could you possibly have with nothing but girls? It didn't matter that Saint Ursula's was in Penzance and so only ten miles away. Ten miles was forever if you had to live away from Mum and Dad and Paddy and Joe.
However, it seemed that poor Judith had no choice. Her father worked in Colombo, in Ceylon, and for four years Judith, her mother, and her little sister had lived apart from him. Now Mrs. Dunbar and Jess were returning to Ceylon, and Judith was being left behind, with little idea of when she would see her mother again.
But it was, as Mrs. Warren was wont to remark, no good crying over spilt milk. Heather cast about for something cheerful to say.
"There'll be holidays."
"With Aunt Louise. "
"Oh, come on, don't be so down in the dumps. At least you'll still be here. Living in Penmarron. Just think, your aunt might live somewhere awful, up-country, or in some town. And you wouldn't know anybody. As it is, we can go on seeing each other. You can come over, and we'll go down to the beach. Or go to the pictures."
"Are you sure?"
Heather was perplexed. "Sure about what?"
"Well, I mean ... sure you're going to want to go on seeing me and being my friend. Going to Saint Ursula's and everything. You won't think I'm snobby and horrible?"
"Oh, you." Heather gave her a loving thump over the bottom with her boot-bag. "What do you think I am?"
"It would be a sort of escape."
"You make it sound like going to prison."
"You know what I mean."
"What's your aunt's house like?"
"It's quite big, and it's right up at the top of the golf course. And it's full of brass trays and tiger skins and elephants' feet."
"Elephants' feet? My dear life, what does she use them for?"
"An umbrella stand."
"I wouldn't like that. But I suppose you won't have to look at it much. Got your own room, have you?"
"Yes, I've got a room. It was her best spare room, and it's got its own wash-basin and there's room for my desk."
"Sounds all right to me. Don't know what you're making such a fuss about."
"I'm not making a fuss. It's just not home. And it's so cold up there, all bleak and windy. The house is called Windyridge, and no wonder. Even when it's dead calm everywhere else, there always seems to be a gale blowing at Aunt Louise's windows."
"And the other thing is, that it's so far from everywhere. I won't be able just to hop on the train any longer, and the nearest bus stop's two miles away. And Aunt Louise won't have time to drive me around, because she's always playing golf."
"Perhaps she'll teach you how."
"Oh, ha ha."
"Sounds to me as though what you need is a bike. Then you could go wherever you wanted, whenever. It's only three miles to Porthkerris over the top road."
"You are brilliant. I never thought of a bike."
"I don't know why you never had one before. My dad gave me mine when I was ten. Not that it's much good in this dratted place, with all the hills, but out where you are, it'd be just the thing."
"Are they very expensive?"
"About five pounds for a new one. But you could maybe pick one up secondhand."
"My mother's not very good at that sort of thing."
"Don't suppose any mother is, really. But it's not very difficult to go to a bicycle shop. Get her to give it to you for Christmas."
"I've already asked for a jersey for Christmas. One with a polo-neck."
"Well, ask for a bike as well."
"Course you could. She can scarcely say no. Going away, and not knowing when she's going to see you again, she'll give you anything you want. You just strike while the iron's hot"—another of Mrs. Warren's favourite sayings.
But Judith only said, "I'll see."
They walked on in silence for a bit, their footsteps ringing on the damp pavement. They passed the fish-and-chips shop, bright with cheerful light, and the warm smell of hot fat and vinegar which emanated from the open door was mouth-watering.
"This aunt of yours, Mrs. Forrester. Your mother's sister, is she?"
"No, my father's. She's much older. About fifty. She lived in India. That's where she got the elephant's foot."
"What about your uncle?"
"He's dead. She's a widow."
"Got any children?"
"No. I don't think they ever had children."
"Funny that, isn't it? Do you suppose it's because they don't want them, or because ... something ... doesn't happen? My Auntie May, she's got no children, and I heard Dad say it was because Uncle Fred hadn't got it in him. What do you suppose he meant by that?"
"I don't know."
"Think it's got something to do with what Norah Elliot told us? You know, that day behind the bicycle shed."
"She's just making it all up."
"How do you know?"
"Because it was too disgusting to be true. Only Norah Elliot could have thought up something so disgusting."
"Suppose so ..."
It was a fascinating topic, around which the two girls had skirted from time to time without ever coming to any useful conclusion, except the fact that Norah Elliot smelt and her school blouses were always dirty. This was not, however, the time to unravel the conundrum, because their conversation had brought them down the hill, to the centre of the town, the public library and the parting of their ways. Heather would carry on in the direction of the harbour, down narrowing streets and baffling cobbled lanes, to the square granite house where the Warren family lived over Mr. Warren's grocery shop, and Judith would climb yet another hill, and head for the railway station.
They stood in the soaking drizzle beneath the street lamp and faced each other.
"I suppose it's goodbye, then," said Heather.
"Yes. I suppose so."
"You can write to me. You've got my address. And ring the shop if you want to leave a message. I mean ... like coming over when it's holidays."
"I'll do that."
"I don't suppose that school'll be too bad."
"No. I don't suppose so."
But neither moved, nor turned away. They had been friends for four years. It was a poignant moment.
Heather said, "Have a good Christmas."
Another pause. Abruptly, Heather leaned forward and planted a kiss on Judith's rain-damp cheek. Then, without saying anything more, she turned and went running away down the street, and the sound of her footsteps became fainter and fainter, until Judith could hear them no longer. Only then, feeling a bit bereft, did she continue on her solitary way, climbing the narrow pavement between small shops brightly illuminated, their windows decorated for Christmas with tinsel wound around boxes of tangerines and jars of bath salts tied with scarlet ribbons. Even the ironmonger had done his bit. USEFUL AND ACCEPTABLE GIFT said a handwritten card leaning against a ferocious claw-hammer which sported a sprig of artificial holly. She passed the last shop, at the very top of the hill, which was the local branch of W. H. Smith, where Judith's mother bought her monthly Vogue and came each Saturday to change her library book. After that the road levelled off and the houses fell away, and without their shelter the wind asserted itself. It came in soft gusts, laden with moisture, blowing the drenching mist into her face. In the darkness this wind had a special feel to it and brought with it the sound of breakers booming up on the beach far below.
After a bit, she paused to lean her elbows on a low granite wall; to rest after the stiff climb and get her breath. She saw the blurred jumble of houses slipping away down to the dark goblet of the harbour, and the harbour road outlined by a curved necklace of street lamps. The red and green riding lights of fishing boats dipped in the swell and sent shimmering reflections down into the inky water. The far horizon was lost in the darkness, but the heaving, restless ocean went on forever. Far out, the lighthouse flashed its warning. A short beam, and then two long beams. Judith imagined the eternal breakers pouring in over the cruel rocks at its base.
She shivered. Too cold to stand in the dark, wet wind. The train would be leaving in five minutes. She began to run, her boot-bag thumping against her side; came to the long flight of granite steps which dropped to the railway station, and hurtled down them with the careless confidence of years of familiarity.
The little branch-line train waited at the platform. The engine, two third-class carriages, one first-class carriage, and the guard's van. She did not have to buy a ticket, because she had a School Season, and anyway Mr. William, the guard, knew her as well as his own daughter. Charlie, the engine driver, knew Judith too, and was good about holding the train at Penmarron Halt if she was late for school, tooting his whistle while she pelted down the garden of Riverview House.
Travelling to school and back in the little train was going to be one of the things that she was really going to miss, because the line ran, for three miles, along the edge of a spectacular stretch of coast, incorporating everything that one could possibly want to look at. Because it was dark, she couldn't look at it now as they rattled along, but knew it was there just the same. Cliffs and deep cuttings, bays and beaches, delectable cottages, little paths and tiny fields which in spring would be yellow with daffodils. Then the sand dunes and the huge lonely beach which she had come to think of as her own.
Sometimes, when people learned that Judith had no father, because he was on the other side of the world working for a prestigious shipping company called Wilson-McKinnon, they were sorry for her. How awful to be without a father. Didn't she miss him? How could it feel, not to have a man about the house, not even at weekends? When would she see him again? When would he come home?
She always answered the questions in a vague fashion, partly because she didn't want to discuss the matter, and partly because she didn't know exactly how she did feel. Only that she had known, always, that life would be like this, because this was how it was for every British India family, and the children absorbed and accepted the fact that, from an early age, long separations and partings would, eventually, be inevitable.
Judith had been born in Colombo and lived there until she was ten, which was two years longer than most British children were allowed to stay in the tropics. During that time, the Dunbars had travelled home once for a Long Leave, but Judith had been only four at the time, and memories of that sojourn in England were blurred by the passage of years. She was never to feel that England was Home. Colombo was, the spacious bungalow on the Galle Road, with a verdant garden, separated from the Indian Ocean by the single-track railway line that ran sooth to Galle. Because of the proximity of the sea, it never seemed to matter how hot it got, because there was always a fresh breeze blowing in with the breakers, and indoors were wooden ceiling fans to stir the air.
But, inevitably, the day came when they had to leave it all behind. To say goodbye to the house and the garden, and Amah and Joseph the butler, and the old Tamil who tended the garden. To say goodbye to Dad. Why do we have to go? Judith was asking even as he drove them to the harbour where the P & O boat, already getting up steam, lay at anchor. Because it is time to go, he had said; there is a time for everything. Neither parent told her that her mother was pregnant, and it was not until after the three-week voyage had been made and they were back in grey England, with the rain and the cold, that Judith was let into the secret that there was a new baby on the way. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Coming Home by Rosamunde Pilcher. Copyright © 1995 Robin Pilcher, Fiona Pilcher, Mark Pilcher, and the Trustees of Rosamunde Pilcher's 1988 Trust. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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