The three mile cycle ride to Hastings took Barbara through familiar lanes and well-loved tracks. She would miss this place; she had spent most of her life here.
She laughed as her front tyre bounced into a pothole nearly unseating her. She was going too fast, but she relished the wild run downhill to the coast. It would be hard, leg aching work, coming back, but was worth it. She peddled more sedately down Castle Hill Road, her fingers gripping the brakes. She dismounted outside the library and propped her bike against the wall. Inside she spotted the leaflet she wanted; she was tempted to take the one for the Woman’s Royal Air Force but this would be futile. As long as she got away from Crabapple Cottage she didn’t really care where she went or what she did.
Tucking the information into her coat pocket she ran down the steps to retrieve her bicycle. The sun was out, but the wind blowing in from the sea made it difficult to find somewhere outside to read her pamphlets. She had no choice - she would have to pedal home. Her mother wouldn’t come to find her in the stables and the tack room had a paraffin stove.
‘Babs, Babs - hang on a minute. I want to speak to you.’
‘John, I thought you’d gone. I’m so glad I got a chance to see you again.’ She beamed at her best friend and the rangy young man returned her smile.
‘Shall we go and have a cuppa out of the wind?’ He reached out and removed the handlebars from her grip. ‘Here, let me wheel that old rattletrap for you.’
Barbara was tempted to refuse; she was quite capable of pushing her own bike to the cafe, but he meant well and he was leaving to fight for his country, so she restrained herself. ‘Thank you, John, now I can put my hands in my pockets and warm them up. Even with gloves they froze on the way down. And anyway, why are you still here? You told me last week you would be gone by now.’
He grinned. ‘I’m off this afternoon. My papers had to be processed and it took longer than I expected. I have to report this evening to Lord’s cricket ground in St John’s Wood, of all places. I think I could be sent to Scotland for my basic training but don’t know where I’ll be going after that.’
‘It’s a good thing they’re sending you to Scotland, somewhere away from houses and livestock, in case your flying turns out to be as bad as your driving.’
‘Cheek! I’ve only had one accident and that was the cow’s fault, not mine.’
Amiably bickering, she walked the short distance to the Copper Kettle with him, a small cafe they had been meeting in for the past two years. She ordered their usual pot of tea and toasted tea cakes from the sour-faced proprietor who guarded her domain from behind a high wooden counter at the entrance. Delighted to see the coveted window seat, which gave an uninterrupted view of the sea, was vacant, they headed towards it.
Hats, gloves and coats were handed to the elderly black-garbed waitress before they sat down.
Barbara pushed her hair out of her eyes. ‘I have some news for you as well, John. I’m intending to join the Land Army.’
‘Good God! Are you? I thought you would become a stalwart member of the WRVS.’ He frowned. ‘Does that mean you’ll be leaving here?’
‘Of course - that’s the main idea. The boys are going off to boarding school on Monday, you’re leaving this afternoon, there’s nothing to keep me here. I want to do my bit for the war effort and they won’t give me permission to join any of the services.’
‘But the Land Army? Wouldn’t you prefer the WAFS or the WRENS? I’m sure you would be an officer in no time.’
‘I just said, they won’t hear of the forces. It’s the Land Army or nothing.’
‘Fair enough! It’s bound to be hard work and you get precious little time off from all accounts. Father’s thinking of applying for some girls to help him once I’m gone.’
The rattle of crockery warned them tea was coming. Barbara smiled her thanks. There was silence as she poured the tea. ‘Do you realise this might be the last time we ever have tea here together?’
‘For God’s sake, Babs! What a morbid thing to say.’
The tea slopped into the saucer. ‘I didn’t mean that….’ Overcome, she concentrated on filling the second cup without spilling any before she felt ready to continue. ‘I meant we’re both moving away from here, not that either of us could be killed.’
‘Let’s be honest, it’s a distinct possibility, at least for me.’ He smiled. ‘And I suppose you could be trampled by a cow or gored by a bull.’
‘I’m more likely to die from hypothermia. Can you tell me anything else about the Land Army? I got some leaflets but I haven’t had time to read them yet. I expect your father will have been through his information with a fine tooth comb.’
She watched him lean back in his chair, closing his eyes in thought. He looked so young, far too young to be risking his life as a pilot. What if he was killed? Would she be able to cope without her best friend to talk to? She studied his face, seeing him clearly for the first time. His fair hair was slicked back; she much preferred it flopping engagingly on his forehead. She frowned. He hadn’t had his hair like that since he’d gone to Oxford three years ago.
They stared at each other. His pale blue eyes darkened and his pupils dilated. Fascinated she moved closer. He closed the gap and kissed her. She pulled back, embarrassed, her arm catching the teapot, sending it crashing to the floor.
For a second nothing happened. Then Barbara jumped up nursing her scalded arm. John, his face scarlet, leapt from his chair and dropped to the floor intending to pick up the scattered crockery. Their waitress almost threw their precious tea cakes on to the table and the three ladies at the next table exclaimed in a loud chorus of ‘well I nevers’ and ‘whatever nexts’.
The manageress, Miss Whiting, appeared from behind her desk issuing instructions in a strident voice. ‘Mary, go into the kitchen and fetch a mop and dustpan and brush.’ The waitress scuttled off, no one argued with Miss Whiting. ‘Mr Thorogood, there’s no call for you to dirty your hands; my girls will clean up the mess. Come along, Miss Sinclair, let me take you into my office and put something on your scald.’
Barbara allowed herself to be ushered into the inner sanctum aware that Miss Whiting had closed the door in John’s face.
‘There, my dear, sit down. Show me your arm.’
Obediently Barbara held it out, still too shocked by John’s extraordinary behaviour to speak. Whatever had possessed him to kiss her and in the Copper Kettle of all places? She shuddered, knowing a description of the event would be regaled to her mother before the day was out. Her mouth felt dry and her stomach contracted unpleasantly.
For an awful moment she thought she was going to be sick. Frantically she swallowed the bile and breathed deeply through her nose. Sweat beaded her forehead and closing her eyes she flopped back against the slippery, polished chair-back.
‘Heavens, Miss Sinclair, you’ve gone quite pale. Here, put your head down between your knees, you’ll feel less faint.’
The very last thing she wanted was to lower her head, she would be sick for sure then. Miss Whiting’s hands gripped her shoulders. She had to say something. ‘I’ll be all right in a moment, thank you, Miss Whiting. I feel sick, not faint.’
‘Oh dear! That’s quite different. Just a moment, my dear.’
Barbara felt the welcome chill of a china bowl being placed between her fingers. Slowly her panic and nausea subsided. ‘I’m not going to be ill, I’m feeling much better.’ She opened her eyes and attempted a reassuring smile.
Miss Whiting, eyes concerned, pink spectacles slipping down her nose, smiled back. ‘Well done! I don’t know what young John Thorogood was thinking, to behave in such a way. I’d always considered him a well brought up sort of boy.’ Miss Whiting removed the bowl from Barbara and placed it with a decided snap on the chenille covered table.
Barbara was touched by her rescuer’s obvious distress on her behalf. She’d never realised Miss Whiting had a softer side. In all the time she had been visiting the cafe she could not recall its owner doing more than sitting silently behind her till, grey-hair scraped back in a bun, daring her customers to offer anything but the correct money.
‘Thank you for your help, Miss Whiting. You have been very kind. My arm’s not hurting so much now and my stomach has settled down.’ She paused, unsure if she should continue. She straightened, marshalling her thoughts. She couldn’t allow Miss Whiting to think badly of John.
‘John’s leaving for flying school later today, Miss Whiting. We might never see each other again. I didn’t mind him kissing me, it was just a shock.’ Her cheeks reddened. Why had she started his explanation? ‘We are not … err … emotionally involved you see, just very close friends.’
Miss Whiting nodded and pushed her glasses back up her nose. ‘Well, my dear, all I can say is that you might not be ‘romantically involved’ as you put it, but young Mr Thorogood definitely has feelings for you. I know we have all been expecting you to announce your engagement any day.’
‘I’m sure you’re mistaken, Miss Whiting. John and I are just good friends, as I said. It was only the thought of possibly never seeing each other again that made him do it, nothing else.’
The walls of the private sitting-room began to close in on her. She wanted to get outside, grab her bike and cycle away from all this. She jumped up. ‘I must go, Miss Whiting, thank you so much for your help.’
‘You’re quite welcome, my dear.’
The cafe was empty, the three ladies departed, the window table cleared, even John had left. She snatched her coat from the wooden stand by the door and shoved her arms in, flinching as the burn brushed through the tweed sleeves. Without stopping to do up the buttons, she pulled on her beret and gloves and ran out.
She scanned the street, no sign of him. He hadn’t bothered to wait and see how she was, to apologise, to explain his behaviour. She blinked back unexpected tears. She hated to part with him on bad terms, he was her dearest friend and she couldn’t bear it if he went away thinking she hated him.
A gust of wind snatched her coat open and she shivered. Hastily she did up the buttons and, stuffing her wayward curls under her hat, grabbed her bicycle and vaulted on. She knew where John would go, where he always went when he was upset, on to the South Downs where he could stand facing out to sea, allowing the wind to clear his head and restore his equilibrium.
He was on foot, but had about half an hour’s start. The cable car that took you up the cliffs the easy way was closed, he would have to use the steps. The beach was deserted apart from the occasional fishermen sitting by one of the black wooden huts that marched in a line along the upper shore. He couldn’t be far up the cliff, if she was lucky he would still be in earshot and she could call him back.
She pedalled furiously along the seafront, her coat flapping out and her slacks in imminent danger of fouling the wheels. The noise of the seagulls screaming overhead almost drowned out the rhythmic bang of the waves on the pebbles. It was full tide and the fishing boats were in and their catch was being sorted into waiting wooden boxes. The gulls soared and swooped over the boats waiting to steal any fish the fishermen cast aside.
Ignoring the cacophony; she’d heard it hundreds of times before. Usually she would stop and watch, but not this morning. She stared up at the cliff but couldn’t see John climbing the steep steps. Had she been mistaken? Had he gone elsewhere? She blinked, attempting to clear the wind-whipped moisture from her eyes. Her chest ached and her legs were leaden after covering the distance from the Copper Kettle in record time.
The fishermen’s huts interrupted her view of the white cliff-face, she redoubled her efforts, and emerged, red-faced and sweating, her eyes fixed to the rocks hoping to catch a glimpse of him.
John had seen her coming and knew why she pedalled so furiously but he couldn’t face the inevitable questioning. She didn’t feel the same as him; he had always known it really. He had hoped she would, one day, come to see him as a potential lover or husband, not just a dear friend.
His ill-timed kiss had told him what his darling Babs could never bring herself to tell him, that his attentions were not welcome. He slipped between the huts and watched her cycle past then quickly crossed the road and vanished up a side street. She didn’t see him go.
Genre – Historical fiction
Rating – PG