There was no foreseeable ending to the wintry weather. Snow had abated for the Christmas week, much to the irritation of Juliet Colquhoun. Her only comfort in this lack of festivity, was the swift removal of her uncle from their midst. By January, the storms returned with a vengeance. Bitter winds coupled with heavy falls of snow and hail, icy temperatures and hard frosts had brought life to a standstill. Reports of ships losing their way or being wrecked seemed an almost daily occurrence.
‘Another one gone down, just last night,’ said Esther, ‘I heard that wrinkly old Jack going on about it, dunno why they go out in this weather. Not worth it is it.’
‘They’re trying to make a living, Esther,’ said Katy, ‘just like the rest of us. The way things are going, we’re all going to starve.’
‘Oh stop it,’ said Esther, ‘we’ve got good stocks here, think of my old mum, think of what she’s living in.’
Katy continued her cleaning, scrubbing the old kitchen table until her fingers felt numb, ‘you should go and see her, take some stuff with you. She probably needs it.’
‘I would,’ sighed Esther, ‘but I don’t have the strength.’
The table ground against Katy’s knuckles. She was fed up hearing Esther complaining of being ‘ill’ or ‘weak’. She was simply the laziest creature on earth. Women had babies every day, some of them were out working a few days later but not Esther. She seemed to think that having a baby was a ticket to be waited on hand and foot, to sit around doing nothing and give orders and have everyone jumps to it. Katy was getting heartily sick of it.
‘My father is out,’ said Katy, slopping a filthy cloth into her pail, ‘he’s helping clear the street, I think.’
‘Not again,’ moaned Esther, ‘why bother? It just snows again and gets covered up.’
‘Yes, I know, but if they don’t do it in between its impossible to do it at all. It freezes solid, they’d need dynamite to move it.’
Esther sighed dramatically, she held little Bill, rocking him to sleep. Katy wished she’d go and sit somewhere else, her indolence was infuriating and provoking.
‘Why don’t you just put him in his cot, he doesn’t need to sleep on your arm. Then you could give me a hand in here.’
‘You know what, Katy,’ said Esther, ‘I think you’re jealous. You hate me being here, you hate the fact that your father cares about me. You’re jealous that I’ve got a husband and you don’t even have any admirers. After all, what exactly are you? A barmaid? And not only just a barmaid, a snappy little wretch of a barmaid, with a face that’d turn milk sour. I used to be jealous of you. I thought you were really pretty, but now, you look ancient. I expect people coming in here think you’re my mother.’
Katy threw down her cloth and leant on the table, staring daggers at Esther.
‘How dare you? If I look ancient it’s because you use me as a slave, you and my father both. You are the laziest person I’ve ever met, look at you sitting there. What if I was just to give up and not bother? See how you’d get along then. You only survive here because of me, you’re only here because of me. If I hadn’t told my father to go and see you, you’d still be sitting in that squalid flat, starving, your baby would probably be dead.’
‘That’s enough,’ said Esther, ‘enough! How can you say that to me, you shouldn’t upset me. Anyway it’s all nonsense, William would’ve married me, he’d have come round on his own, I know it.’
‘Don’t kid yourself! He’d forgotten all about you.’
Baby Bill had woken and started to cry. The kitchen was rent apart by his excessively loud howling, Katy was sure it couldn’t be normal for any child to cry that loudly.
‘Look what you’ve done now,’ said Esther, ‘you’ve woken him.’
‘Well, if you’d done what I said in the first place and put him in his cot, he’d still be there perfectly happy. It’s not my fault, it’s yours. There’s no way I’d ever be jealous of you, you’re a terrible mother and a terrible human being.’
Katy stormed from the room, taking care to slam the door as loudly as she could. Bill’s screaming resonated through the building.
Maybe it was vanity, but she couldn’t help herself going straight to her room and looking in her mirror. She was so used to the anger ridden face that returned her stare that she couldn’t see any difference. Did she really look so old? She’d thought Esther looked much older than her, was it really the other way round? Her father used to say, ‘with your looks, you’ll go far, my girl.’
If she didn’t have her looks, what did she have? She sat down on her tiny iron bed and put her head in her hands. Closing her eyes she tried to see, to imagine a future. But all she could see was black. Was that all there was? Was she stuck here forever? She looked up. There must be something else she could do. She knew how to walk like a lady after all. She’d spent time in that horrible school in Edinburgh walking about with a book on her head, learning to say words properly and to play the piano. She flexed her fingers, wondering if she’d even remember now. It seemed to belong to another life. The days when her father was quite respectable, before he’d gambled and drunk all his money, before they’d come to this godforsaken place and she’d been reduced to a life of slavery.
If someone locked the doors and barred her window, she wouldn’t feel more trapped than she did already. Lying down she could still see fleeting glances in her mind’s eye of her school days, good and bad, mostly bad.
‘You Katy,’ her old teacher’s voice rang in her ears as though she was really in the room, ‘this is Christina’s brooch, the one we’ve been looking for, what was it doing in your desk?’
‘it wasn’t,’ said Katy, she felt bemused and upset and began twisting her hair round her finger.
‘Don’t do that to your hair,’ snapped the teacher, ‘you’ll ruin it, if I see you doing that again I’ll see to it that it gets cut off. Now for this brooch, Rebecca has just this minute found it in your tray.’
‘I didn’t,’ said Katy, ‘she must have put it there.’
‘No Miss,’ said Rebecca, she was neat and tidy, not a hair out of place. Her clothes were immaculate and she spoke with perfect diction, ‘I knew Katy must have it, she said yesterday she’d be able to catch whoever did it, I guessed she must have it and was going to try to plant it on somebody. Me I expect, she’s always horrible to me.’
‘No,’ said Katy, she could feel tears in her eyes, ‘I didn’t.’
‘My office, now.’
Katy rubbed her hand convulsively as though she had just felt the cane’s lashes. She sat up, remembering where was. She wasn’t a thief or a liar but she’d always been made to feel like it at school, she hadn’t fitted in, they all knew she was from a poor background. It had toughened her up, she didn’t let anyone bully her now but it had also puffed her up. Now she knew about a different way of life it was even harder to come down to the dregs that was this place. It didn’t change the hard fact however, there was simply no way out.
A steady drip, drip, drip could be heard on every pane of glass in the Anchor. A week after the snow had arrived it began to disappear though it wasn’t in any great hurry.
The thaw had but it still felt bitter. Katy stuck her head out the front door to speak too the errand boy and a large icicle narrowly missed her head dropping from the spot it had been clinging to for weeks, the boy ran away laughing.
Katy fetched the broom and went outside, a couple of other giggling children ran off too, perhaps expecting her to beat them with it. She started knocking down the remaining icicles, it wouldn’t do to decapitate the punters before they had a chance to taste the ale.
‘Hello,’ She turned to see a man standing behind her. Wrapped up tightly in a scarf, she hardly recognised him, ‘you seem to be having fun.’
‘Mr Darroch? What are you doing here, we’re not open yet.’
‘I’ve missed coming here,’ he said, ‘I’ve been meaning to come back for weeks, I didn’t like the way we parted.’
Katy held the broom tightly as she stared into his dark eyes.
‘Are you going to wallop me with that broom?’
‘I wouldn’t blame you if you did, I know you think me a total brute. You told me, that you didn’t like me and I’m sorry for that, truly,’ he said, watching her face intently, ‘it was my own fault in the first place, you have no idea, really, no idea, how I’ve cursed my own folly for behaving the way I did. You see, I do like you.’ Katy felt very warm for the time of year. ‘I always did,’ said George, ‘I completely overreacted when you spilled the beer on me, I was embarrassed. Partly, I confess, I wanted to humiliate you in return, but mostly, I just wanted to see you again. I thought I could drag you to my lodgings and we could talk properly there, it’s always so difficult here.’
Katy breathed deeply, she saw a tall, handsome man standing before her. He was easy on the eye, his words seemed true and he looked well turned out. If she could forgive him, he’d be the perfect man. Forgiveness never came easily though.
‘You’re very quiet,’ said George, ‘what does that mean? You normally have a lot to say, should I read anything into your silence? You still dislike me? If you do, I’ll leave and I’ll never trouble you again, I swear.’
‘No,’ said Katy quickly, ‘I’m just surprised, I didn’t expect to see you, and I certainly didn’t expect such a full apology.’
George smiled, a look of immense relief flooded his face.
‘Maybe you’ll walk with me?’
‘I have a lot to do,’ said Katy, she glanced behind into the gloomy passageway of the inn, ‘a lot, and if I don’t do it…’
‘What? Will someone beat you?’
‘No, nothing like that. But if I don’t do the work it won’t get done, simple as that.’
‘Well then,’ said George, he was beaming, ‘surely you can spare me an hour?’
His face was imploring. The sky looked brighter than Katy had seen it for weeks, icicles and melting snowdrifts were twinkling in it. she suddenly longed to be outdoors.
‘I’ll get my coat.’
As she unhooked it, she had a vision of a large wooden door, it was opening, just a crack, but enough to see a little flicker of light. She smiled, maybe she could forgive George after all.
Walking through the slushy streets, they shared was an awkward silence, Katy was unsure what to say which had rarely happened before. She normally had several choice words for every situation but this was different. They made do with several glances at each other and the exchange of furtive grins.
‘Where are we going,’ she ventured at last.
‘We can walk up the coast if you like? There are beaches and a pretty headland near the lighthouse with a nice view out to sea.’
‘It’s a bit icy for that,’ protested Katy, ‘shouldn’t we stick down here.’
‘Yes, you’re probably right. I like going up there though. On a summer’s day it’s beautiful, you can see for miles. I like going up there to think.’
‘And what do you think about?’
‘Lots of things,’ said George, ‘but mostly money.’
Katy laughed, ‘money? You’re lucky to have any to think about.’
George didn’t reply he looked discomfited and slightly agitated.
They walked on in silence again. Patches of black and grey were appearing through the snow but there were still great mounds piled up on corners and the side of buildings, either from natural drifting or from the combined efforts of several men.
‘One day Katy, one day,’ sighed George.
‘One day what?
‘One day I’ll take you up that hill and we can look out to sea.’
‘Sounds lovely, but Mr Darroch, I need to get back. We’ve been away for ages and that work won’t do itself.’
‘Please, I insist you call me George. I have an older brother, he’s Mr Darroch, I’m just George, that’s what I’m used to.’
‘Very well then, George.’
They made their way back to the Inn, Katy was surprised just how long she’d been away. George put his gloved hand to her cheek and brushed his fingers over it.
‘You’re very beautiful,’ he said, ‘really.’
His hand slid down her neck and it came to rest on the gold pin fastened to her lapel.
‘That’s very handsome,’ he said, rubbing it with his fingers, ‘and looks very expensive, where did you get it?’
‘Oh,’ said Katy, she felt a little embarrassed, ‘someone gave it to me,’ she lied.
‘Indeed,’ said George, ‘a lover? It looks more like a man’s pin.’
A flash of green filled his eyes, unmistakable jealousy.
‘No,’ said Katy, ‘it was a… a relative, he died.’
The words liar and thief raced through her mind, a white lie that was all and she hadn’t stolen it, she was just looking after it, if she ever saw the man again she’d give it back to him.
George’s eyes had returned to their handsome shade of hazel. He smiled raising her hand to his lips and kissed it.
As she entered the house, she felt a little dizzy.
Her ears were met by a furious tirade as both Esther and her father appeared yelling at her at the tops of their voice, Bill was screaming from somewhere unseen. The place looked like a war zone and she had a lot of explaining to do.