Outside, a neat row of washing hung from a line and a thin trail of smoke drifted from one of the barley-sugar twist chimneys. Behind the house were kennels, and a sitting house for nesting game birds. Swinging himself out of the saddle he felt a juddering through his body as his artificial leg hit the ground first and the impact drove pain through his stump. It was always a harsh reminder, coming back to earth after riding – on horseback he forgot his disability.
Leaving Hooker untethered to crop the grass in the clearing, he approached the house. The sooner he got this job over with, the better. Once done, he might earn a brief reprieve from his mother’s constant carping.
Before he reached the door it opened. The woman must have been watching him through the window. A dog slipped out from behind her and sniffed around Christopher before curling up next to a woodpile.
She was older than Christopher. Early or mid-thirties he guessed. Dressed in a drab brown garment, she had scraped her dark brown hair back from her face into an untidy bun.
‘The dog’s old. Does nothing but sleep these days. I expect he thought it was my husband coming back. He never gives up.’
‘I’m sorry about Mr Walters. I’ve been meaning to come and offer my condolences for some time.’ Christopher tugged his hat off his head.
‘You’re the younger son, aren’t you? Master Christopher?’
‘I should call you Captain Shipley now, I hear. Come to tell me to get out, have you?’
Christopher felt the blood rush to his face and he started to stammer an answer, but she spoke first. ‘I’ve been expecting you.’ She studied him, her face expressionless. Christopher felt his face heating up under her gaze.
The woman gave a shrug. ‘Best come inside. Kettle’s just boiled.’
He followed her into the house, uncertain why he was doing so, but unsure what else to do.
The door opened straight onto the kitchen, with the scullery beyond it. Mrs Walters prepared the tea in silence as he stood leaning against the door watching her. She was tall, almost as tall as he was, and despite her loose fitting dress he could tell she was of slender build. As she moved about he caught the odd glimpse of her calves above the top of her buttoned boots. She picked up the tray and asked him to hold open the door from the kitchen and he followed her into a small parlour with a scrubbed deal table and a fire burning in the grate. A pottery jug filled with spring flowers sat upon the table. She motioned him to sit.
‘You lost your leg in the war I heard. Doesn’t stop you riding though. They give you a wooden one?’
Christopher blinked, taken aback by the woman’s frankness. He muttered assent. ‘Others lost more.’ Then feeling the heat burning in his face, he stammered, ‘I knew your husband. He served with me.’
‘Served for you, you mean.’
‘He was my batman.’
He hesitated. ‘I suppose it’s a bit like a personal servant. He looked after my uniform, ran errands, did all kinds of tasks for me. He was a good man. The best.’ He lowered his head. ‘I’m sorry for your loss.’
‘Were you there when he died?’
Christopher swallowed then nodded his head.
He felt his hand shaking and, afraid he would spill his tea, he put the cup back on the saucer, hearing it rattle against the spoon. ‘I don’t like to… I can’t…’
The woman stared at him, her face still blank, revealing no emotion as she waited for him to collect himself. He imagined what his mother would say if she saw him now, reduced to stammering by a servant.
Breathing in slowly, he said, ‘I sent him back to the dugout to get my pocket watch. I’d left it on top of my trunk. Stupid thing to do.’ He glanced down at his hand as it shook on the surface of the table, then drew it away resting it under the table on his leg. ‘The dugout took a direct hit from a shell. When we went back, there was a crater. Harold… Private Walters was the only man lost that day… if I hadn’t asked him to fetch my watch…’ He lifted his eyes, then dropped them again under her penetrating gaze.
‘So it would have been quick?’
He looked up again. ‘Instant. He wouldn’t have stood a chance. Wouldn’t have known anything.’
The woman frowned then sipped her tea. Putting the cup down, she said, ‘What about you? How did you lose the leg?’
‘Six months later. Just before the end of the hostilities. In Belgium. Ypres. I stepped on a landmine when we were advancing. A moment of carelessness on my part and it cost me my leg.’ He gave a hollow laugh.
Mrs Walters studied him, her eyes green with little hazel flecks. She hadn’t smiled once. Pointing at his hand she asked, ‘Is that down to the war too? The shaking?’
He nodded. ‘Nerves. They said it was shell shock.’ He was ashamed as he told her, but felt compelled to answer her questions. ‘Stupid, I know.’
‘My mother thinks it is.’ He gave a wry smile. ‘She keeps telling me to snap out of it.’ What was it about this woman that made him open up to her?
Mrs Walters said nothing, but reached for the teapot and refilled their cups.
After a few minutes of silence, she said, ‘So when do I have to be out of here?’
He hesitated. His mother had told him to tell her she had to get out by the end of the week. ‘Have you anywhere to go? What will you do?’
‘I see,’ he said. ‘Perhaps there’s a place for you among the house servants. I’ll ask Mother. Then you’d have accommodation too.’
She shook her head. ‘I’ve asked already. There’s nothing. It’s men they need, not more women.’
‘I see,’ he said again, conscious that he must sound inane.
‘I’m too old to find another husband. Not when there are so many young women and not enough men left to go round. I’ll have to go to the city and try to find work.’ She fingered the sleeve of her blouse, a tiny gesture that revealed that perhaps she was more nervous than she appeared. ‘I’ve lived in this house all my life. It’s all I’ve ever known.’
Christopher was surprised, assuming she must have moved here when she married Walters.
‘My father was head keeper before my husband, who was much older than me. He was just turned fifty when he volunteered with your brother and most of the estate workers.’
‘I’m sorry. At fifty he could hardly have been expected to serve. Do you think he felt coerced to join up?’
‘I mean was he put under pressure to volunteer?’
‘No one wants to get a white feather.’
‘But at fifty?’
‘He wanted to go. He couldn’t wait.’
‘He was a fine man.’
‘You thought so, did you?’
‘I know so. I suppose the fact that we both came from Newlands was a bond between us… but he was a brave man, a fine soldier.’
The woman’s expression was inscrutable. She swirled her teacup, examining the dregs of leaves in the bottom, but said nothing. After a few minutes of silence Christopher stood up. ‘Thank you for the tea, Mrs Walters.’
She rose. ‘Will you visit me again? I don’t have much company. I liked talking to you.’
He felt the blood rushing to his face and neck and he swallowed. ‘I’d like that.’
‘Come tomorrow. Same time.’
As he clambered onto his horse, Christopher realised that he had failed to give Mrs Walters a date to vacate the property. What would he tell his mother?
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