Read Far From My Father's House Online

Authors: Elizabeth Gill

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Sagas

Far From My Father's House

Far from My Father's House

Elizabeth Gill

First published in Great Britain in 1996 by Hodder and Stoughton

This ebook edition published in Great Britain in 2013 by
Quercus
55 Baker Street
7th Floor, South Block
London
W1U 8EW

Copyright © 1996 Elizabeth Gill

The moral right of Elizabeth Gill to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

ISBN 978 1 78206 1 755

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places and events are either the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

You can find this and many other great books at:
www.quercusbooks.co.uk

Also by Elizabeth Gill

THE SINGING WINDS

UNDER A CLOUD-SOFT SKY

THE ROAD TO BERRY EDGE

SHELTER FROM THE STORM

SNOW ANGELS

Prologue

1915

In the end Letty waited for the right time, when Will had gone up the very top fields to see to the sheep, shouting his dog to go with him, and she called Hannah in from where she was feeding the hens in the yard.

The little kitchen was full of the smell of newly-baked bread. They had not needed new bread making that day but she always made bread when she was anxious and she had never been more anxious than she was now.

Hannah looked pale. She was beautiful. Letty had always known without exaggeration how beautiful her daughter was, the thick golden hair, the bright blue eyes, the skin which browned in the summer sun. She was tall and slender with graceful limbs, a happy smile and she was all her parents had.

Letty had dreamed of Hannah married to a good man somewhere in the dale, giving them grandchildren. She had dreamed of afternoons over the teacups with the babies, of somebody who would take care of Hannah because the girl was shy. She rarely ventured far from home except to church on Sundays, and Letty happily saw the young men trying not to stare. One day one of them would walk up the steep hill from the village, open the gates on the way, up to the little hillside farm where Hannah had been born and then Hannah would know the happiness of a good marriage. There was nothing more her mother wished.

But now the dreams were fading. Now Letty didn’t know what to say. Hannah had of late become withdrawn and silent and in the early mornings while her father slept the older woman had heard her get up and go outside and retch into the long grass beside the stone wall. Hannah ate nothing.

‘I want you to tell me,’ Letty said. She needed to be angry, to have at least some explanation so that the anger would have a place to go.

‘Tell you what?’

‘I want you to tell me who the man is.’

‘There is no man.’

‘But there has been, hasn’t there? There must have been or you could hardly be having his child!’ She felt impatient. She wanted to shout, maybe even slap Hannah for having destroyed the dream before it had taken wing.

Hannah looked down.

‘I didn’t think you knew,’ she said.

‘Your father doesn’t know but he will have to. There’s no way you can keep a secret like that.’

‘I thought I might, at least for a while. I haven’t done anything wrong.’ That was a blow. If Hannah had done nothing wrong … Letty took a deep breath and tried to keep her voice steady.

‘Is it something that can be put right?’

Hannah shook her head.

‘There’s nothing to be done,’ she said.

‘If you tell me who it was—’

‘I can’t.’ Hannah sank down on to the little stool before the kitchen fire. She didn’t cry though her mother thought she was going to.

‘If it was just a mistake – everybody but God makes them . . .’ her mother said but Hannah was shaking her head definitely.

‘I was on my way back from the village when he came by on his horse. I didn’t think anything about it. He got down from the horse and tied its reins around the gate in the middle field. There was nobody. He got hold of me. I didn’t scream at first but even when I screamed and screamed until I couldn’t scream any more nobody came. He thought it was funny. He laughed quite a lot. He put me down and did – he did things to me. When it was over he tried to give me some money. He said if I told anybody he’d have us put out.’

‘Oh, Hannah, I wish you’d said. I wish you’d told us. Why keep such a burden to yourself?’

‘Father would have killed him. I couldn’t. I didn’t think this would happen. I thought if I pretended it had never happened everything would be all right. I thought you couldn’t be expecting when it had only happened once.’

‘That’s an old wives’ tale,’ her mother said wearily. ‘What shall we tell your father?’

‘What I told you. That I didn’t know him, that it happened in the dark when I was walking home. That’s what we’ll tell him.’

Letty took the girl into her arms. The dream was shattered now and it seemed there was no one to pay the price but them.

One

1929

It was when he went to live at Grayswell that the children, remembering from school, called him Blake. When he lived with his grandparents they called him Davy. Blake could not remember a time when he did not work. He could barely remember a time when he could not take the horse and have half the bottom field cut in the July morning before the seven o’clock bus went down the dale, carrying the men to the quarry.

The only other people on the little hillfarm were his grandparents and a hard living it was. They seemed to him so very old. He could not imagine how they would have managed without him. His grandmother was always calling him from the yard and his grandfather was always calling him from the field and he feared that some day he would break right in two because there was not enough of him to go round. At night by the fire his grandmother would hug him to her.

‘You’re all we’ve got,’ she would say.

His mother lay up in the churchyard not far from the waterfall. Not that far from the farm, you could almost see the house from the churchyard but it was a long, long way, Blake thought, when somebody was dead. All he could see to indicate his mother’s presence was a small wooden cross with her name, Hannah Blake, and her years, 1898–1916. There was nothing left of her anywhere. Except for him it was as if she had never existed. There were no photographs of her, no possessions. His grandparents didn’t talk about her unless he asked and even then not much, and it seemed to hurt them so he tried not to ask though he would have liked to have known more about her. He only asked once about his father but they said that they knew nothing.

*  *  *

When Blake lay in bed at night he thought a lot about his parents. He was even comforted by the fact that he must have had a father, even the calves and the lambs had them, it was biologically impossible not to have but as far as he knew there was no sign of any man who might have been anything to him.

One day the summer that Blake was thirteen he had begun cutting the low pasture early. He kept going until he was finished and as he walked the horse back up the fields he heard his grandmother’s voice, as usual from the yard. ‘Davy! Davy, your breakfast’s getting cold!’ The words never varied and they were never less than a relief. He was very hungry by now and his grandmother was the kind of woman who should have had a large family – though how they would have supported them is difficult to say – but she loved to cook. She liked nothing better than seeing people around her table. There would be thick slices of bacon and fresh eggs and plenty of bread because his grandmother had made bread only yesterday. She made bread two or three times a week and with such loving care that it always tasted wonderful.

It was some time before he reached the house and she was still fussing about the breakfast getting cold though she was only just ladling it from the pan, knowing exactly what he had been doing and how long it would have taken him and the amount of time it took to come back up the fields and make everything right before he walked into the kitchen.

It was not a big house but its kitchen was a big room and there was also a tiny parlour at the front. There were bedrooms above it and housing for the animals next to it and Blake could not have liked a room more. It was always warm. He and his grandfather kept the fire well supplied with wood for cooking and washing. The kitchen was his grandmother’s kingdom, just as the outside and the barns were his grandfather’s.

His grandmother looked up sharply now.

‘Have you washed your hands?’

She always said that too. Blake smiled and did so at the kitchen sink.

‘Where’s your grandfather?’

‘I don’t know. Up top I expect. He said he was going to see how the heifer was getting on.’

His grandfather liked to make sure that every animal on the small farm was safe and well each day and he had a heifer due to calve.

‘He should have been back by now.’

Blake knew that trying to soothe her would do no good so, not thinking of the smell of bacon he was leaving behind, he put on boots again and his jacket and set off up the fields behind the farm, trudging up the deep cart-rutted track, climbing over the gates instead of opening them and enjoying the walk in spite of his hunger. It was a good day in late July. Summer was wonderful at the farm and though the winter had been a hard one it had not been dismal. His grandmother made all kinds of country wines throughout the season and kept a stock of them in the pantry. His grandfather laughed and said that dandelion wine gave you backdoor trot but the truth was that her wines were very good. Blake well remembered her elderflower wine which had gone into a second fermentation and become what she called her elderflower champagne. It was the best thing that Blake had ever tasted, the bubbles like bitter honey. She made birch sap wine and beetroot wine – the colour was rich and deep – and she made honeysuckle wine from the honeysuckle which twined itself around the tiny wooden bridge in the front garden. There was elderberry which was almost black and it sometimes fermented again like raspberry froth and gorse which they had sworn never to make again because their fingers had bled trying to pick the flowers.

Blake kept his mind on these things as he trudged up the steep fields. He ignored the view because it was a thousand times old to him, even though he loved it better than any place on earth, he just thought about Christmas and chicken and sitting around the fire, reading and playing cards and being in the warmth while the wind did its best to batter down the walls of the old farm. The stone buildings had been well put together and Blake trusted them. He remembered going to bed on Christmas night with a hot brick in his bed and listening to the soft voices of his grandparents in the next room and thinking of how much he loved them. This last thought made him move faster. He was almost there now but he couldn’t see his grandfather. He jumped over the gate in the very top field – it was his grandfather’s favourite because the view from there was the best, all the fields laid out before him and the grey farms, and way way below at the bottom of the valley was the river running silver.

The cows were at the far side of the field. In the corner there was what looked like a bundle of something, dark and strangely twisted and when he got nearer Blake’s heart told him what his head had already feared.

He had never met disaster and grief head on before but he saw it now. His grandfather was dead. He didn’t doubt it. There were no moments of almost relief when he thought that perhaps the old man had fallen or lost his wind. It was the way that he was lying. Blake didn’t have to have seen it before to know that it was death but in a way, he thought, he had seen it before. He had seen animals die and it was really no different. It was an ending, it was a defeat, it was a kind of awful triumph over the man that his grandfather had been, it was a horrible simple wiping out of something complex and intricate and well-loved. Blake got down beside him and started to cry and all he could think was that his grandfather had died alone and that he could have been there with him and comforted and possibly even helped him. For his grandfather to die alone seemed the worst thing about it and then he thought that he had to go back down and tell his grandmother. He knew what that meant for her, no one to talk to in bed for the rest of her life, no one to share the memories with from childhood because they had known one another since they were babies. It meant that the past was over and maybe even the future for her. He couldn’t go down, he couldn’t move. He didn’t ever want to move again. The summer wind blew warm across the field where his grandfather lay and Blake cried.

*  *  *

That autumn his grandmother didn’t even attempt to get him to go to school. She had done so in the past even though Blake hated it and would have done anything to get out of it, and because they needed him he had often succeeded. Things were different now. She could not manage without him, indeed they could barely manage even though he worked from light to dark and sometimes beyond that.

It was strange. He had thought that the long, winter nights would have been more difficult than the summer and early autumn after his grandfather’s death but it was easier somehow as though the darkness gave the little house a blanket to hide behind. Nothing could have been more difficult than that August. The light rarely went from the sky and he had no peace and no sleep and he knew that his grandmother did not sleep either. He heard her moving around, going downstairs, the stairs creaking under her light weight. Day and night they drank tea. It was enough to put you off for good. She was in the kind of shock which meant that she worked all the time and because it was so light and because he did not sleep he was up at four and outside and it was just as well because there was no one to help him now. She could not do the heavy work though she did everything she could. They had to keep the farm. The farm and all the other farms around it belonged to Joseph Harlington who lived in Southgate Hall at the top of the valley. He was not an unkind man, he had said they could keep the farm as long as they could work it but both Blake and his grandmother were terrified that somehow they should lose it. When Blake did sleep he had nightmares about being put from the land and other dreams, better ones in which his grandfather came back. Night after night when he slept his grandfather returned to the farm. Waking up was so cruel, in the silent dawn with only his grandmother for company. He thought that he knew loss because of his mother but he didn’t remember her. The old man had been as precious to him as breathing. Each breath hurt.

On the nights when he did not dream that his grandfather returned – or even sometimes on the same night – he dreamed of losing the farm, of being turned out though how it should happen he could not imagine. The daytime was bearable and between them they managed the work, and his grandmother gave to him and he imagined that he gave to her a little sanity as the days shortened and cooled and the darkness brought the comfort of the fire and food and wine which his grandmother now deemed essential at the end of each day. Blake was grateful for the darkness when it came, for the dawn which broke his nightmares, for the days which were never quite as bad as he imagined they were going to be. The worst had happened and there was some kind of comfort in that, at least it could not happen again. Only once could he find his grandfather dead. Each day he did not have to face that again so each day was better than the worst day of his life.

Mr Ward, the teacher at the school, sent books so that it would look as if Blake was doing schoolwork but he rarely did. Mr Ward was a farmer’s son and he knew that if Blake was to keep the farm he had to work it but he knew also that Blake was meant to be at school.

That Christmas was the first difficult Christmas of Blake’s life and even that was not as bad as he had thought it would be. Nothing could ever have been as bad as he imagined.

Two days after Christmas the vicar, Mr Lawrence, came out to the fields where Blake was giving hay to the sheep. He was comforting himself with the thought of the hay. After his grandfather had died he had worked hard to make sure that there would be winter feed for the animals and when the first frosts came he had snagged turnips so that there would be nourishment for the ewes in lamb. Work was good. Work was easy compared to everything else. It made you feel human again.

Mr Lawrence stood, watching him, smiling and then he said, ‘Can’t you persuade your grandmother to move into the village, David?’

Blake eyed him uneasily.

‘Why?’ he said.

‘It would be better for her. You can’t manage this and your lessons.’

‘We get by,’ Blake said.

‘Your education is important.’

‘So is the farm.’

‘Mr Harlington will give you a house in the village.’

It was then that Blake decided he had never liked the vicar.

‘My great-grandfather had this farm, my grandfather died here. Nobody’s taking it from me.’

‘Nobody’s trying to take it from you, David—’

‘No? So what’s all this talk about a house in the village? My grandmother doesn’t want to move. This is our home.’

‘You’re just a boy.’

‘I don’t need you to tell me what I am. Now you get off my land.’

‘David—’

‘Get off it, and don’t mention this to my grandmother. She’s had enough to worry about these past months,’ and Blake turned and walked away.

*  *  *

It was not easy being rude to the vicar and afterwards he doubted the wisdom of it but at the time it felt good and he needed to feel like that, to hit out at somebody and something for what had happened. It did seem slightly unfair to take it out on the vicar. Mr Lawrence was an easy target, he was clumsy and stupid but he had asked for it and Blake was more than willing to do whatever was necessary to ensure that he and his grandmother could go on living at Sunniside. The name seemed all wrong now. The sun was gone from the farm, there was nothing but endurance and the kind of love which kept his grandmother baking bread three times a week even though there was only the two of them to eat it. He didn’t know how long it would be before he pointed out to her that she was still cooking and baking for three. She didn’t seem to know how to do anything else.

After Christmas the weather suddenly turned worse. It was too cold to snow, the frosts were bitter and relentless. He urged his grandmother to stay inside, that he would take care of everything, but there was so much to do that she would not linger indoors if he needed help. She began to cough and though he tried to keep her warm and look after her the cough grew worse until not only was he doing all the outside work but having to come in and start there. At first she kept on as best she could with the house and the cooking, and she did the small jobs that she had always done like feeding the hens and seeing to the dogs and cats. After a while she was sitting down every time he came in and then she was lying asleep on the sofa because she did not sleep at night for the coughing fits. Blake went to the village for the doctor but even though he came and gave her something she did not get better. He put her to bed. She didn’t object and she would have, he knew, had she been able. She got worse. She was hot and didn’t know where she was and she kept talking to him like he was his grandfather. The only peace she seemed to have was when he pretended to be his grandfather. Then she would smile and nod and go back to sleep for a while. Blake got the doctor again. He sat with her all night and most of the day except for the feeding of the animals. The night and the room were cold and he came to dread the nights because she no longer knew who he was or who she was and when the doctor came again he said that Blake’s grandmother should be in hospital.

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