Read Katy's Men Online

Authors: Irene Carr

Katy's Men (27 page)

She
made the tea and as they drank it Ivor gave her a fictional address for Katy to write to, and an equally fictitious account of his doings since the start of the war. But he left as soon as he could, refusing Annie’s offer of: ‘I can give you a bite o’ dinner.’


No, thanks. I’ve got a train to catch. But give Katy my best and tell her I’d love to hear from her after all these years.’ He made his escape and got a bus out to the Great North Road. He dared not take a train because there were Military Police on all the main line railway stations. However, he was lucky and just north of Durham he was picked up by a lorry travelling south. That was the first of a succession of lifts. He spent some time sitting at the roadside and that night he stayed in the house of an old woman who did bed and breakfast. He arrived in London close to midnight of the following day.

And
at that same time Annie answered another heavy knock at her front door and Matt Ballard said, ‘Hello, Annie. I’m looking for Katy.’

 

 

Chapter
Twenty-Two

 

MONKWEARMOUTH
AND LONDON. FEBRUARY 1918.

Matt
was very brown, thinner in the face and harder. His khaki uniform was worn but fitted him as if he had been poured into it, the knack of the veteran soldier. Annie exclaimed, ‘There’s a surprise! You’re home on leave?’

He
said grimly, ‘Aye. I’ve got just one week before I go to France. It’s my first home leave since December 1914, but it seems they are short of Service Corps non-coms out there.’ But then he seemed to dismiss that as of no importance. Annie could sense the pent up anger when he said, What the hell is going on? I sent a telegram to Fleur, telling her I was coming home. She didn’t meet me at the station and when I got to the house the maid there told me “Madam” was out at some dance and she didn’t know where. I came to the yard and it’s locked and there’s a notice saying the key is with you. Where’s Katy?’


In London. She wrote to you.’ Then Annie remembered there was a blackout and she was standing with the door wide open, casting light into the street. ‘But come in, come in!’ And when she had sat him in the chair used by Ivor she asked, ‘Didn’t you get her letter? She wrote to you, telling you all that had happened.’

Matt
shook his head. ‘I got no letter.’ He thought a moment, then: ‘I think the only address she had was the one I sent when I first went abroad. I’ve moved about a lot since then: Egypt, then Gallipoli, East Africa, Mesopotamia, back to Egypt. That letter could be anywhere.’ But in fact it lay on the seabed in the Mediterranean, inside the ship which had carried it, torpedoed by a U-boat.

Annie
handed him a cup of tea. ‘Can I get you something to eat? A sandwich, or I could fry—’

Matt
waved away the offer. ‘No, but thanks for the tea. I’m not hungry.’ He looked at her and asked, ‘So what happened, Annie? I went away thinking that if anyone could keep that business going it was Katy.’


And you were right!’ Annie insisted. She sat down opposite him. ‘Now, I don’t know all the ins and outs, mind, but . . .’ And she told him how the petrol restrictions had cut down the time the single lorry could work, how Katy could only get a boy to help her and he had gone into the Navy, and then the crash.

When
she had finished, Matt sat in silence for a while, but then said reluctantly, ‘I would have thought there would have been some capital left to tide the business over.’

Annie
stiffened in her chair. ‘Katy wasn’t dipping her fingers in the till, I’ll swear to that.’

Matt
shook his head. ‘That’s not what I was thinking, but there’s something that doesn’t add up.’

Annie
said, ‘Well, I told you I didn’t know everything. But the final accounts and the books are still in the office. Do you want the key to the gate?’


Yes. I’ll go there tomorrow. Do you have an address for Katy?’ Matt stood up.

Annie
gave him Katy’s address and the key to the yard then saw him to the door. Just before she let him out she said, ‘I had another friend of hers come here today looking for her: Freddie Tait.’

Matt
said absently, his thoughts elsewhere, ‘I don’t recall the name.’ He was facing up to the knowledge that the business built up by Katy and himself was no more.

Annie
explained, ‘He knew her — and her father — in Wallsend. I’ve got his address and I’m sending it to her.’ Then she added, ‘Not that he stands much chance with her. He didn’t look Katy’s type at all.’ Then reprovingly, ‘Pity you married that Fleur. I always thought—’

Matt
broke in on her: ‘But I did. Good night, Annie.’

Annie
’s lips tightened at the snub but she remembered where he had come from and what he was going back to: the killing ground of Flanders. So she said, ‘Good night, bonny lad. Come and see me again.’

Matt
went back to his house and told the sleepy maid to go to bed. He sat up, waiting for his wife to return. Fleur came back in the early hours of the morning. She was alone in the motor taxi which set her down outside the house, and modestly attired in a high-collared, dull grey dress. Matt opened the door to her and she greeted

him
brightly, ‘Hello, darling! Sorry I couldn’t come to meet you but this dance was arranged absolutely weeks ago and you can’t disappoint people, can you? And really I was working — it was for a war charity, you know — that’s why I wore this dreary old thing.’ She flapped the skirt of the grey dress. ‘I’m saving my best clothes because I don’t know when I’ll get any more, the price of things these days.’ In fact she had changed in Dawkins’ room at the Palace Hotel before she came home.

Matt
answered, ‘You disappointed me.’

Fleur
’s smile vanished and she pouted as she pulled off her silk gloves then turned for him to catch her coat as she slipped it from her shoulders. ‘I hope you aren’t going to sulk. It won’t make this war any better for you if I stay home all miserable. I can only go out on these charity dos because I don’t need an escort; there are a lot of women like myself whose husbands are away and we stick together.’ Then she added darkly, ‘Mind, there are some . .

She
left it there, suggestively, and went on, ‘I’m not that sort but I need to have a
little
pleasure. It’s very scarce these days. Like money. I hate to talk about it but I must. That Merrick woman simply refused at first to increase my allowance. I soon showed her the error of her ways!’

Matt
demanded, incredulous, ‘She increased it?’


Of course she did!’ Fleur tossed her head. ‘But then she had the insolence to write to me — I got the letter from her months ago — saying it would
stop
in March! I wrote back, of course, and told her I would see a lawyer if she interfered like that.’ Fleur smirked with triumph for a moment. ‘And my allowance has been paid without any bother.’ Now she pouted again. ‘But I went to see the manager at the bank and he said the business
had
shut down and my allowance
would
finish at the end of the month. I wrote to you, of course, because that’s absolute
nonsense
and I suppose that’s why you’re here. You must do something about it, darling, transfer some cash into the account or something.’ Fleur gave him a quick smile, gone as soon as it appeared, and got no reply. This was not the old adoring Matt. He watched her coldly, his face set. She chattered on uneasily, ‘I can’t understand why you left the handling of the money to her. It’s so
humiliating
for me to have to go to her for every penny. If you’d left the firm’s money in my hands I could have given her what she actually needed and kept a tighter hand on the purse strings. I know you think she’s marvellous.’ That was accompanied by a sneer. She went on, ‘But I believe she’s not to be trusted.’

Matt
had listened with bewilderment and rising anger. Now he broke in: ‘I didn’t get your letter about the allowance because I’ve been in a transit camp or on a troopship for the past six weeks. They didn’t fetch me home to sort out your financial affairs but because they want me in France at the double. And you’ve been talking bloody rubbish!’

Fleur
stared at him open-mouthed. ‘Oh! How can you speak to me like that!’


I’ll go down to the office tomorrow and find out what’s been going on.’ Then, as Fleur gaped at him, he went on, ‘Katy Merrick couldn’t increase your allowance without my permission and you didn’t ask for it. You didn’t write to me about anything.’ Matt threw her coat onto the hallstand. ‘The capital left in the firm’s account was for the firm. Katy was supposed to use it for the firm. You say she gave you more money?’


Of course she did! I had to have it! But she made me practically
beg
for it!’ She flounced past him and began to climb the stairs. Her boldness was an act. She was frightened, knew Matt was in a towering rage and his silence now only made it worse. She wanted to sleep alone and tried to summon up the courage to say so. It was not needed.

Matt
said, ‘I’ll sleep in the spare room.’

Fleur
tossed her head, ‘Suit yourself.’

It
did suit him. His desire for her was dead.

The
next day he opened the gates of the yard with the key given to him by Annie. There was one letter in the post-box and he recognised Fleur’s writing. It was her letter to Katy, threatening legal action if her allowance from the firm was not continued. He read it and winced at the abuse it contained, then crumpled it into a ball.

He
found the office key hidden in the crack between doorstep and door and let himself in. The air was stuffy so he opened the window, then dusted off the chair with his handkerchief and sat down at the desk. The books, accounts and bank statements were in a drawer and he set them out on the desk and began to read.

As
the morning wore on the picture steadily fell into shape like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. He saw how Katy had worked to keep the business going and how it had failed. He also saw where the money had gone. He sat with his head in his hands. Loyalty and duty had always been the keystones of his life. He had married Fleur out of love but now the love was gone. The duty remained but that was all.

He
looked up and remembered Katy sitting at this desk, or out there, crossing the yard, slender and graceful and laughing. He sighed and wrote her a formal little note asking if he could see her when passing through London on his way back to his regiment. He posted it on the way back to his house.

Arrived
there, he sought Fleur and the maid answered him, ‘Madam is still in bed, sir.’

Matt
asked, ‘How much does — madam — pay you?’ ‘Seven shillings a week, sir.’


Pack your belongings and go home. There’s a week’s notice and a bit besides.’ He gave her ten shillings.


Ooh! Thank you, sir.’ This was not the girl Katy had seen, and there had been others filling the post of maid since then. But this one, like her predecessors, had had enough of Fleur and Dawkins and was working her notice. A friend of hers worked in a factory for a pound a week and had told her there was a job for her if she wanted it.

Five
minutes later, Matt walked into Fleur’s room without knocking. She started up in bed, her nightdress slipping off one shoulder, and asked querulously, ‘What d’you mean by barging in here—’


I’m your husband and we need to talk.’ Matt stood over her. ‘There are going to be some changes. For a start, I’ve just paid off the maid and the cook.’


What
! Fleur hitched at the strap of the nightdress and threw off the covers to get out of bed. ‘What the
hell
do you think you’re doing?’


I went down to the yard this morning.’ Something in his tone made Fleur shut her mouth and as he took a pace towards her she retreated. He continued, ‘I read through the accounts of the business, the books and bank statements. They can’t lie and they tell a different story from the one you told me last night. You’ve milked that business, my business, dry. I left you an adequate allowance on top of the allowance from my Army pay and you’ve frittered it all away and demanded more. God knows what you spent it on but I can guess and anyway, it’s gone. There’ll be no more money from the yard.’

Fleur
gaped at him, ‘What do you mean — gone? The yard is still there. Isn’t it?’

Matt
snapped impatiently, Of course it is! But you wouldn’t know because you only went there when it suited you. The business closed down nearly six months ago. It hasn’t made a penny since then.’

Fleur
attempted to shift the blame. ‘That little bitch, Katy! She’s had the money!’

Matt
shook his head contemptuously. ‘No, she hasn’t. It’s clear where the money went. Katy authorised the bank to increase your allowance out of
her
share of the firm, so long as it lasted. She used the firm’s capital to pay your damned allowance! Now it’s finished. You’ll manage on what I send you from my Army pay, and if you want more you’ll have to find work.’

Fleur
tried to salvage the situation. She smiled up at him tremulously and gave a twitch of the shoulders so that the strap slipped again and showed one breast. She stepped close to him and stroked his face. ‘You poor darling. No wonder you’re upset.’ Her mind was racing frantically, trying to find a way to escape this threat to the life she lived, and she remembered: ‘But you still have the yard. You bought the freehold of that just before we married. Weren’t you wise! That must be worth a lot of money.’


I’m not selling.’ Matt was definite. ‘For one thing, it’s all I have left to come home to if I survive this war. For another, I can’t. Katy Merrick put up some of the money for that purchase. She is part owner and I can’t sell without her agreement.’ Now he brushed her hand away. ‘You’re my wife and I’ll honour that obligation. While you are faithful to me, I will keep my share of the bargain. I won’t let you starve, but that’s all.’ He pushed her aside so she fell across the bed and he strode out of the room. Her wailing followed him down the stairs. It was partly contrived, a last effort to weaken his resolve, but also had an edge of real sorrow. She had married to secure her financial future and now that was lost.

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