CHRONICLES OF HALDEN, IV

A Tale of

Three Sisters


by
Robin Gordon




Auksford University crest: within a circle, a greak auk supporting a book bearing the legend "Ex ovo sapientia"
-  Auksford, 2010  -
 
© Copyright Robin Gordon 2010


    It was the worst of times.  Already it had been going on for five years: an exile from all that made life worth living, an exile from the centre of life to a place so far out on the periphery that it was barely life at all.  The distant past had taken on a rosy glow: the best of times, lost but never to be forgotten.  The loss of London had destroyed their hopes, their futures, their very lives; and their only hope was to return, to retrieve the shattered shards, to reconstruct a simulacrum of what their lives might have been.
    Their mother’s illness had been the start of their downfall.  Dr Stephenson, despairing of her health, had begun to console himself with the odd glass of whisky.  The children pulled together.  Olivia cooked and Maria shopped.  Andrew cleaned shoes, ran errands and made himself as helpful as he could, and little Irene, too, swept and dusted under Olivia’s direction.
    Mrs Stephenson grew worse, went into hospital, then into a hospice, from which they knew she would never return.  After her funeral they did their best to carry on as usual, but Dr Stephenson fell into a depression from which the only respite was to be found in alcohol.  The household soldiered on under Olivia’s direction.  All four children worked hard at school, faithfully did their homework, performed their allotted chores without complaint, and still found time to go to the cinema or out and about with their friends.
    The trouble lay with their father.
    From occasional medicinal glasses he graduated to regular, solitary imbibing.  His partners became concerned for his health and his competence.  No longer could he unerringly identify the underlying causes of his patients’ symptoms and prescribe the appropriate cure.  His diagnostic skills were as shaky as his hands, and his prescriptions were often unreadable and sometimes dangerously unsuitable.
    His partners began to fear that he might possibly kill instead of curing, which would reflect badly on the practice and might lose them influential patients.  After two or three near misses the senior partner called him in for a private discussion.  Dr Stephenson denied that his drinking affected his work in any way and refused to consider early retirement on health grounds.  He was, after all only in his forties and had many years in which to contribute to the health of the British people.  However, after another near miss and further pressure, he was forced to agree to resign from the practice and move to a quieter part of the country where he could recuperate and where any slight miscalculations he made in his prescriptions would not affect people whose premature deaths would be front-page news.
    They had moved, then, from Highgate to Ulverthwaite in Swardale, a place of which none of them had ever heard, and Dr Stephenson joined a small practice in Geddonby, covering that little town, the villages of Ulverthwaite and Geddonthwaite, and the surrounding  countryside.
    Olivia was given a place in the upper sixth at Halden Girls’ High School, and Maria was put in the fifth form.  So deep was their depression that Olivia, who should have been Oxbridge material, barely scraped good enough grades to attend the local training college for primary school teachers, while Maria did so badly at O-levels that it was quite impossible for her to study at sixth-form level, and so she took a job as a counter-clerk in the employment exchange in Halden, a dead-end job with no prospects of advancement.  Irene’s life was blighted too.  She went to Geddonby junior school, joined the 11-plus class, and failed miserably.
    Things went better for Andrew, though he would probably not have agreed at first.  He joined Halden Grammar School for boys in the second form.  His classmates welcomed him, glad to have a new friend, but, when they asked him how he liked the school, his answers were so full of contempt and hatred that they soon turned against him.
    After his third or fourth debagging he learned that the only way to keep his trousers was to keep his feelings to himself.  He was tolerated, he submerged himself in the mainstream of boys who had no particular peculiarities, and his initial hostility was eventually forgotten – but he himself did not forget what he had lost, and, though his sisters were condemned to vegetate in Swardale instead of enjoying the brilliant careers they would undoubtedly have achieved in London, he determined to work hard, get good O- and A-level results and make his escape to a good university, and, from there, fight his way to prominence.  Unlike his sisters, who had moved at crucial points in their school career, Andrew had time to overcome his despair and so he became the pride and joy of his family, the one who would get to the top and rescue his sisters from their provincial exile.  They would return to London.
    Olivia, meanwhile, had become a school-teacher and found a place, rather against her will, at Geddonby.  She would have preferred to go south, but Dr Stephenson, after heroic attempts at teetotalism, had, through a combination of loneliness and boredom, once more succumbed to the comforts of the bottle, and his new partner was beginning to feel concern for him and for his patients.  Olivia felt she was needed to keep an eye on things, to cajole her father into some semblance of sobriety, and, if necessary to support the family financially until Andrew could effect their rescue.
    Maria had married a slightly more senior civil servant and was living in a smallish house in Geddonthwaite.  She was bored.  Her husband, who had at first seemed a good catch, had little prospect of further advancement, and showed no interest in her frequent suggestions that he should apply for a job in London.
    “Why should I want to move to London?” he asked.  “I’m happy here.  All my family and friends are here – and you’d miss your family too.”
    He laughed at her certainty that moving to London would bring all sorts of opportunities for advancement and friendship with prominent personalities.
    “We’d meet the same sort of people we meet here,” he said, “people that are out of work and looking for jobs – ordinary jobs.  You don’t get important people queuing up in labour exchanges.”
    Irene left school and started work in the post office in Geddonby.  She had become by far the prettiest of the three sisters, and had a couple of suitors, though, seeing Maria’s plight, she was determined not to marry a local man unless he promised to take her back to London.  Still, it was entertaining to have two suitors, and she played them off, one against the other, while they both made quite a game of their deadly rivalry, threatening to murder each other one dark night, or to fight a duel to decide which of them should have the fair Irene.
    As for Andrew, he achieved respectable results and won a place at the University of Leeds.  The three sisters were ecstatic.  Three years at Leeds, then Andrew would get a job in London.  He would rise rapidly: the chances for an able young man in the metropolis were immeasurable.  Within a few years he would send for them.  Once there … well, anything was possible.

    It was Irene’s birthday.  It fell in vacation, so Andrew was home.  Dr Stephenson was in jovial mood: he had drunk a couple of glasses of his favourite whisky but was by no stretch of the imagination inebriated.  Maria was present too, but her husband was on duty.  Olivia brought a special guest: the new headmaster of her school – a Londoner.  The sisters crowded round to hear his news of the capital, and his views on Geddonby, and to let him know that they too were of metropolitan origin and not mere country girls with limited conversation.
    He seemed especially taken with Maria, not, apparently realising that she was married, and when they sat down at the table he contrived to sit next to her.
    “I often feel,” she said, “that people with wider cultural vision are a dying breed.  You’ll find the people of Geddonby very dull, Mr Marshall, and I feel that under their stifling influence we too will lose all our interest in life and become just vegetables, potatoes perhaps, or swedes.”
    “I don’t think you could ever be dull, Miss Stephenson,” he replied.  “I think the existence of people like you and your family will always have an influence for good.  One day, perhaps, everyone in Ulverthwaite will be like you – and your descendents will lead them on to still higher levels.”
    She would have replied, and replied very wittily too, you may be sure, but Dr Stephenson was tapping his teaspoon on his saucer as a sign that he wanted to make a speech, which he then did, praising his youngest child, Irene, to the skies, while she sat blushing with pleasure between her two suitors.  Kevin Barron took one of her hands and pressed it to his lips.  Immediately Tony Stone seized the other and implanted upon it an audible kiss.
    “Silly boys,” she said, blushing adorably while they exchanged a glance across her, simultaneously divided and united in their rivalry.
    The doorbell rang at that moment, loud and long.
    “Who can that be?” murmured Olivia as she rose to answer it, but before she got as far as the dining room door it rang again.
    “A patient probably,” said Dr Stephenson.  “Lost his aspirins and wants an urgent prescription for new ones.  We doctors get this all the time.  A friend of mine told me he was called out in a raging storm in the middle of the night to an isolated farm, and when he got there the woman said she was down to her last few indigestion tablets and wanted to be sure she had a prescription with her when she went into Halden next morning.  He wrote her a prescription, he said, and told her that from that moment she was off his panel and would need to find herself a new doctor.”
    A raised voice was heard in the hall, the door was flung open, and Bill Johnson came in, dragging his daughter Nancy by the arm
    “My Nancy’s pregnant!” he shouted.
    “Well,” said Dr Stephenson, “I don’t know whether you expect congratulations or commiseration, but it doesn’t look as if she’s in urgent need of medical attention, so perhaps you could make an appointment …”
    “She’s pregnant,” roared Johnson.  “He’ll have to marry her!
    “Undoubtedly,” said Dr Stephenson.  “Of course he should.  I take it Nancy can identify the father.”
    “It was him,” shouted Johnson, and pointed at Andrew.
    There was consternation around the table.  Mr Marshall took Maria’s hand and held it comfortingly.  Kevin and Tony clutched Irene.  Olivia grabbed the back of a chair and stood trembling.  Andrew paled and gasped.  Dr Stephenson opened and closed his mouth like a fish.
    “It was him!” repeated Bill Johnson.
    “Andrew?” said Dr Stephenson.
    “Impossible,” gurgled Andrew.  “It just isn’t possible.”
    “You didn’t have intercourse with this young lady?” his father asked.
    Nancy burst into loud and accusatory weeping.
    “It was him!” thundered Bill Johnson.
    “Well, Andrew?” said Dr Stephenson
    “She can’t … I mean … it’s not possible … everybody knows … and she told me herself … she said she couldn’t get pregnant if we did it standing up.”
    “You … stupid little fool!” roared Dr Stephenson.
    “He’ll have to marry her!” shouted Bill Johnson.
    “Yes, of course he will.  Don’t worry about that, Mr Johnson,” said Dr Stephenson.
    “A’ll see t’vicar and get t’banns read,” said Johnson.
    “Do that, do that … yes … do that,” said the doctor.  “Yes, do that … thank you for letting us know.”
    The Johnsons withdrew and the family and their guests sat in stunned silence.
    “You realise,” said Dr Stephenson to Andrew, “that this puts and end to your studies.  The university couldn’t possibly have you back in the circumstances, and, besides, you’re going to have to find a job to support your new family.  How you could possibly have been so ignorant as to believe that vertical intercourse was safe I cannot imagine, and you the son of a doctor too.  Don’t they teach you anything at school.”
    “Not about … that,” muttered Andrew.  “I’ve heard lads saying it’s safe, and Nancy said it was.  She said that’s what we both wanted.  She said there’d be no baby …”
    “You’ve been conned, cozened, deceived, inveigled and entrapped,” said the doctor.  That little minx sees you as a meal-ticket for life.  I need a drink.”
    Thus it was that Andrew passed from being the family’s great hope for deliverance from its long exile in the back of beyond, its hope of reintroduction to metropolitan life, and became a further millstone, bound for life to a country lass without two words to say for herself, a girl who could barely speak a single passably grammatical sentence, and whom, even if their own return had been possible, they could never present in London society.
    Readers from a later age, in which single mothers whelp without a care in the world, in which certain strata of society regard illegitimate children as a source of income from state benefits, in which some communities regard fatherhood as limited to impregnation, after which the male moves on leaving taxpayers to fund his offspring’s upbringing, in which government ministers in association with the media regard it as their duty to undermine the traditional family structures in pursuit of some form of libertarian multicultural relativism – such readers may find it surprising, even shocking, that Andrew’s studies should be curtailed after he had simply followed his instincts, or that he should have had to marry Nancy, but that is how things were then: unmarried motherhood was a disgrace and an honourable man was expected to shoulder his responsibilities and pay for his wild oats.

    Andrew married Nancy, and within a few months their first child was born.  Nancy had him christened Robert, after her favourite film star, though she usually called him Bobby, or even Bobbikins, for she had developed a maddening, constantly babbling prattle.
    Andrew found a job in an office in Halden.  The work was boring, the pay was poor, the prospects negligible.  He took to smoking cigarette after cigarette.  The house stank of stale tobacco smoke.  He drank too, but unlike his father he stuck to beer: it was cheaper.
    Dr Stephenson had moved on from Glenfiddich and Laphraoig to cheaper whiskies which he could afford to consume in greater quantities.
    Olivia taught still, and found her work tiring.  She suffered from frequent headaches.  Maria still lived with her husband in Geddonthwaite, and found him unbearably dull.  She was a frequent visitor to her father’s house, as too was Olivia’s headmaster, Mr Marshall.
    “If only we could have got back to London,” Maria said to him.  “We could have been happy there.”
    “There’s no such thing as happiness anywhere,” said Mr Marshall.  “We live, we work, we do our best, we leave children to succeed us, and then we die.  Swardale or Siberia, London or Liberia, what does it matter.  Misery is misery.”
    “True,” said the doctor.  “My only consolation is to believe that this world of ours is only a sham.  You, my dear Marshall, are merely a figment of my imagination, or possibly I am a figment of yours.  I suppose it all depends how you look at it, not that it matters really.  I say to myself, whenever I hear that woman prattling at that infant of hers – my grandson I suppose, though I’m not allowed anywhere near him – I say to myself, she’s nothing but a figment, not real at all, if I wished I could obliterate her jus’ like that.  I do obliterate her too, most of the time, thanks to this: the cup that inebriates but does not cheer.  Cheers!”
    “My only consolation” said Mr Marshall, “apart from my conversations with you, Maria, are my two little girls.  I try to do my best for them in spite of my wife, and I think, thank God – if he exists, which, given the misery in which he makes us live, I take leave to doubt – that they take after me rather than their mother.  She’s in hospital again, you know.  Another overdose.  Three times she’s tried to kill herself since we moved here.  One of these days she’s going to succeed, I suppose.”
    “Unlikely,” interposed the doctor.  “I’ve had one or two patients like that – in London rather than up here.  They time it so that they’ll be found.  It’s a sort of cry for help, or a means of imposing their will on their families.  I suppose your wife wants to go back to London.”
    “She does,” said Marshall.  “She can’t understand why I took a job up here.  I’ll go back eventually I suppose, when the right job comes up.  I keep telling her, I wouldn’t have got a headship in London, not for years.  This is just a stepping stone.”
    “Cheers! said the doctor.
    Irene came in just then.
    “God!” she said.  “I feel old!  My life is seeping away.  I hate that post office.  I hate just standing behind a counter selling stamps and giving out pensions.  I was actually rude to some old biddy today.  Told her to make up her mind and stop wasting everybody’s time.  She went out muttering like a poisonous old witch – but I’m not like that.  If only I were in London, even a London post office.  There might be film stars.  Perhaps the Queen might come in to post a letter … perhaps not the Queen, but Princess Margaret might and I could get into conversation with her and be invited to one of her soirées.”
    “I know what my husband would say,” said Maria.  “He’d say, really important people don’t come into post offices and post things themselves.  He’d say, you should be happy here, Irene, just like Maria and I, oh yes, he’d say like Maria and I.  I’ve tried to explain to him when to say Maria and I and when to say Maria and me but he says his teachers taught him you always have to say Maria and I.”
    “Thank God, if he exists,” said Marshall, “for teachers like Olivia.  I know it’s an uphill struggle, and I know she’s not in the right place, not in the place she belongs, but she’s not wasted here.  Thanks to Olivia we’ll have a generation in Geddonby of people who know when to say Maria and I and when to say Maria and me.”
    “I doubt it,” muttered the doctor.  “Cheers!”
    “So do I,” said Olivia.  “I try to correct their grammar but they just tell me their mothers tell them this is right, sometimes even their other teachers.  It’s no wonder I have this headache.”
    “Where are your suitors, dear?” Maria asked Irene.
    “Not sure,” she replied.  “They went off into the wood together yesterday, and when I saw them today they both had black eyes and bruises.”
    “Fighting for your hand,” murmured Dr Stephenson.  “Modern equivalent of a duel.  Has a victor emerged yet.”
    “I’ll decide,” said Irene.  “I suppose it’s amusing to have them at daggers drawn, but I won’t just be spoils to the victor, as if two dogs were scrapping for a bone.  I’ll make my choice when I’m ready.”
    “Bravo!” said the doctor, pouring himself another whisky.

    Months passed.  Nancy gave birth to a second healthy child, this time a daughter.  She insisted that Bobby should move to Irene’s room – a child needed a bright sunny room, she said, and Irene could easily share with Olivia or move to one of the attic rooms.  Irene tried to resist, but Nancy argued that as Irene and Olivia were out at work all day, leaving the management of the house to her, she should have a right to decide who slept where and how each room should be used.  Irene, she said, was being totally unreasonable.  All the household duties fell on her shoulders and it really was too much if people who played no part in the management of the house should now take it upon themselves to criticise her arrangements when she tried to do her best, and, God knew, it was difficult, and besides Bobbikins needed a bright and airy room, and how could an unmarried, childless woman like Irene possibly understand the needs of toddlers, and Bobbikins was such a sweet child that surely any reasonable person would have to see that his needs should take precedence over the whims and fancies of those who should be old enough to know better than to jeopardise the health of such a dear little boy and she really didn’t see why she should have to put up with such obstructive selfishness.
    Her new position as self-declared mistress of the house had given her an unchallengeable volubility and so Irene eventually gave up and moved to the attic, complaining bitterly to Olivia and Dr Stephenson that she was maltreated and wishing she were in London.
    “Take the train,” said Dr Stephenson.  “Bus into Halden, then the train to London.”
    “How can I go, just like that?” Irene demanded.
    “Marry one of your suitors,” suggested Olivia, “then you can go together.”
    “Has either of them actually asked you yet?” asked Dr Stephenson.
    “Not in so many words,” said Irene.  “I’m beginning to get a little tired of this everlasting courtship.  I think I’ll choose Kevin and tell him we’re getting married and moving to London.”
    “Do,” said Olivia, “then at least one of us can escape this dreadful exile – and if one of us escapes, she can rescue the others when she’s made her way in the world.  At least we women aren’t likely to jeopardise the family fortunes by sowing wild oats like some men I could name.”
    “Talking of wild oats,” said Dr Stephenson, “I suppose you’ve noticed that Nancy’s baby has brown eyes.”
    “Yes,” said Olivia, “what of it?”
    “Nancy and Andrew both have blue.”
    “Yes, but you’ve got brown eyes and some of us have got brown and some blue.”
    “Blue is a recessive gene,” said the doctor, “and brown is dominant.  Your mother had blue eyes, so she had two blue-eye genes.  My eyes are brown, but I’ve obviously got one brown gene and one blue, because some of you have inherited my blue-eye gene and some my brown.  You, Olivia, with your brown eyes, have one blue gene from your mother and one brown gene from me, and, as brown is dominant, your eyes are brown.  Andrew inherited blue from both parents, and so, obviously did Nancy, but the father of that baby of hers has brown eyes.”
    “Paul Potter!” cried Olivia and Irene together.
    “She’s always been far too friendly with Paul Potter, said Olivia.
    “People have seen her going into his house while Andrew’s at the pub,” said Irene.
    “What about Bobbikins?” Olivia demanded.  “I suppose that little snake is Andrew’s baby?”
    “Blue eyes,” said the doctor, “but, if Paul Potter is carrying the recessive blue gene, Bobbikins could be his.”
    “So Nancy tricked Andrew into marrying her!” cried Irene.  “She tricked him and condemned us all to stay here instead of going back to London.”
    “It’s possible,” said Dr Stephenson, “but it’s not certain, and we’ve no way of finding out.  Best not to say anything.”
    “Do you think Andrew knows?” Olivia asked.
    “I don’t think he paid much attention in biology classes,” said her father.  “Anyone who believes that if you have intercourse standing up you’re in no danger of getting your girlfriend pregnant is unlikely to have considered the genetics of eye-colour.  Don’t say anything.  The poor boy’s miserable enough as it is, tied to that woman.  Thinking his children aren’t his own might just tip him over the edge.”
    Nothing was said to Andrew or to Nancy, but Olivia and Irene decided they had to tell Maria.
    “Such shocking behaviour,” she said.  “It’s so typical of these peasants among whom we’re forced to live.  They fornicate like the beasts of the field, while we live by a totally different, higher, more civilised morality.  Nancy produces bastards by her paramour, and poor old Andrew stands by her and supports her.  She can manipulate him because she knows he lives by a code of honour that she wouldn’t consider for herself – and because of her we lost our chance of going back to London.”
    They agreed and sympathised, then, suddenly, Maria said: “I’ve got an admission to make.  It’s no secret that I can’t stand my husband.  He’s boring.  He’s happy living here.  He refuses to take me to London, even though I’ve told him that the opportunities there would open the way for us to advance.  He says we’d miss our family and friends.
    “Well, none of that’s new to you.  What is, is that I love Peter Marshall.  He’s always been so sympathetic.  He’s always understood that we three are different from the women that live here.  I’ve talked with him often, and I’ve gone for long walks with him, and I’ve even kissed him.  I long to be with him completely and utterly, but, unlike that woman, I have never shared my lover’s bed – and I never will … unless … unless by some miracle we were both to find ourselves free.
    “Then I’d go with him to London … but … as things are …”

    Dr Stephenson’s reliance on whisky to make his life at all bearable, increased.  Sir Richard Robson of Geddon Hall called Dr Thompson, worried about Dr Stephenson’s diagnosis and prescription for his son Lionel, who had picked up some illness during his post-university travels abroad.  Dr Thompson swiftly identified the trouble, re-prescribed, assured Sir Richard that the medicine prescribed by Dr Stephenson would have done no harm, whatever the local chemist said, then went straight to see Dr Stephenson.
    Their conversation was long and bitter.  Dr Thompson reminded Dr Stephenson that this was far from being his first mistake, and pointed out that while his other errors might have given the odd patient a headache or an upset stomach, he had on this occasion come within a whisker of killing the heir to Geddon Hall, and that he would undoubtedly have done so but for the vigilance of the Geddonby pharmacist.
    Dr Thompson offered to certify Dr Stephenson unfit for work and eligible for a disability pension – and Dr Stephenson agreed to take early retirement.  His partnership was sold, which gave him some capital, and his pension would have allowed him to live in frugal comfort, if only he could have forsworn whisky.  He could not.
    Nancy was not pleased to have her father-in-law at home, around the house, always under her feet.  He got the sharp end of her tongue.  It wasn’t as if he were supporting his family any more.  He had only that pitiful pension, and he spent most of it on drink.  He was a liability, a useless, inconvenient, drunken old man, and she thought it appalling that he should be living in the same house as her darling Bobbikins and Babykins.
    Dr Stephenson took long walks in Geddon Woods and tried to convince himself that Nancy was just a figment of his imagination, a being whose existence he could simply annul, but, as usual, he found that the only way to blot her out was to drink himself into a stupor.
    Olivia became deputy head of the school in Geddonby and resigned herself to spinsterhood.  One day, perhaps, she would apply for a headship or deputy headship in London, but she would have to prove herself in her new post before she could think of moving on.
    Then there was bad news for Maria: Mr Marshall had applied for and secured headship of a school in outer London.  He and his wife and children would be leaving at the end of the school year.  She would have to stay in Swardale with her husband and without the pleasure of cultured conversation with her friend.
    That left only Irene.  She alone could break out of their exile.  She alone could claim her place in London, make the most of the opportunities offered by the greatest city in Europe, and eventually throw a lifeline to her family.
    Her two suitors still courted her assiduously and each still threatened the other with assassination should he succeed in claiming for himself their joint inamorata.  She had for some time found Tony Stone’s courtship both creepy and inclined to sudden accesses of near-violence.  Kevin Barron, she decided, was the man for her, and so she contrived to see him without his constant shadow and announce to him that she had decided to marry him and that, immediately after their wedding, they would move to London, where they would find greater opportunities of developing their talents and advancing in the world.
    “Wonderful, darling!” he cried and pressed her hand to his lips.

    A couple of weeks passed.  Olivia secured a small flat in Geddonby, which would be much more convenient for school.  Irene would have staked her claim on Olivia’s room, but, now that her marriage and move to London was only a short way off, she simply acquiesced when Nancy claimed it for Babykins.  In a few weeks she would be out of that dingy attic room with its low, sloping ceiling, and on her way to the bright lights of London and the bright future that the capital held in store for people of culture and ability.
    “I haven’t seen your suitors for a while,” Olivia remarked one day.
    Irene hadn’t seen them either.  Tony Stone was probably heart-broken at having lost her, but where was Kevin?  Surely they couldn’t have fought seriously?  Surely Kevin couldn’t be so badly injured that he was unable to leave his house, or so badly disfigured that he was afraid to let her see him.  Anything, they concluded, might be possible, though it was more likely that Kevin had a slight cold and did not wish to pass it to his beloved Irene.
    “What are you three talking about, then?” said Nancy, clutching her brown-eyed Babykins.  “Still dreaming about going to London?  I don’t know why you don’t just go – and take that disgusting old drunk with you.”
    “As it happens,” said Olivia, “we were talking about Irene’s forthcoming marriage, after which she will be going to London.”
    “Huh!  Fat chance!” said Nancy.  “Not seen your boyfriend all week, have you?  And I’ll tell you why not.  He’s run off to London with the other one.  There’s more scope for their sort down there.”
    “What do you mean their sort?” Irene demanded.
    “Did you really not know,” Nancy jeered.  “They’re queers both of them.  Well, we’re well rid of them, that’s what I say.  I wouldn’t have had them in the house meself, but that father of yours is just too soft – brain softened by whisky, that’s what I say.  They weren’t interested in you at all.  They were just using you as a decoy so people wouldn’t suspect – but people knew.  Why d’you think they went into the woods?  Not to fight duels for which of ’em would have you.  Naw, they went in for a bit of whatever that sort do.  It’s disgusting that’s what I say.”
    “But they often had black eyes and bruises,” Irene protested.
    “Because the other lads knew what they were up to,” said Nancy.  “They won’t stand for that sort of filth round here, and quite right too, that’s what I say – so you won’t be getting married, miss, and you won’t be going to London now after all – not unless you want people to think you’ve gone off to join the queers.  You and your dreams!  Well, London’s a filthy sort of place if it’s full of people like that, that’s what I say, but if you want to go then get on with it.  There’ll be one less mouth to feed and one less person to clean up after, and good riddance, too, that’s what I say.”
    And Nancy swept out in vindictive triumph.
    “She’s lying!” said Maria decisively.
    “Obviously,” Olivia agreed.  “She’d say anything to hurt us.”
    “Because we’re different,” said Maria.
    “But why hasn’t Kevin come?” said Irene
    Dr Stephenson came in.
    “I’ve been hanging about outside until that woman left,” he said.  What’s wrong?”
    They told him what Nancy had said.      “You’ll have to know,” he sighed.  “It’s all only too true.  Since I’ve been retired and forced to spend my days walking round the village and in the woods to avoid her, I’ve learned a lot that I didn’t know before.  Yes, Barron and Stone are both homosexuals.  They were just paying court to you as a cover for their real inclinations.  Their trips into the wood were for sexual assignations and their black eyes were not mutually inflicted but resulted from confrontations with other local youths.  Your announcement that you had decided to marry young Barron threw their arrangements into disarray, and they fled to London, where, as Nancy has said, they can disappear into the anonymous flotsam and jetsam of homosexuals, tarts, and drug-addicts that congregate in the metropolitan underworld.”
    “We never knew that London was like that,” said Maria.
    “We thought it was full of the most wonderful opportunities,” said Olivia.
    “You thought,” said Dr Stephenson, “that the streets were paved with gold.  Many, many people have gone to London driven by that illusion, and many of them have drifted into poverty and into that underworld.  Don’t pin your hopes on London.  You can be as miserable there as anywhere else, and it’s as full of people like Nancy as Ulverthwaite.”
    The doctor went out again, leaving the three sisters alone, sitting in silence for a while.  Then Irene said, “Will we ever go to London?”
    “If we do, would we be happy?” said Olivia.
    “Would we be happy anywhere?” said Maria.
    “Have we been out here in exile too long?”
    “Are we too old to make our way in the world?”
    “Are our dreams just dreams?
    “Is it all an illusion?”
    “If only we knew.”
    “If only we knew …”

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