Spinning the Yarn
My name's Kate Shackleton. I'm thirty-one years old, and hanging onto freedom by the skin of my teeth. Because I'm a widow my mother wants me back by her side. But I've tasted independence. I'm not about to drown in polite society all over again.
Seven o'clock on a fine April morning, cosy under my blankets and red silk eiderdown. Through the open curtains I looked at the blue sky with its single small white cloud. In Batswing Wood, a blackbird sang. A crow alighted on my window ledge, head tilted, beady eye peering as I swung myself out of bed, planted my feet on the lambs-wool rug, stretching and curling my toes. Crow visitor turned tail, plopping a parting souvenir on the window sill.
Time to start the day. From downstairs came the sound of the letter box, first a rattle then a series of gentle thuds as post hit the mat.
As I brushed my teeth, a horse clip-clopped along the road towards Headingley Lane.
The back door opened. Mrs Sugden would be at her self-appointed task. She would clank round with bucket and shovel, stepping along the little path to the road, and scoop up horse muck. Manure. Good for the roses, she says. Waste not, want not. But how much fertiliser does one garden need?
A small mountain of horse dung grows between the coal shed and the fence that separates the back garden from thewood. Resident armies of flies and bluebottles delight in its stench.
Knowing that some people, particularly my mother, hold my way of life and pastimes odd, I don't like to interfere with Mrs Sugden's manure habit. For a reason I dread to fathom, my housekeeper has appointed herself horse muck monitor for the neighbourhood.
I live a short cycle ride from the centre of Leeds, not far from the university, and from the General Infirmary where Gerald once worked as a surgeon. Ours is the lodge house, sold off by the owners of the mansion up the road when the new occupants cut down on staff. A neat extension provides Mrs Sugden with her own quarters, a situation which suits us both.
Because of the university and the infirmary, we have our fair share of soaring intellects in this part of the world, though I don't count myself among them. My nose for solving mysteries comes from having a police officer father, a poke-your-beak-in persistence and an eye for detail.
Dressing gown round my shoulders, I sat on the bed and pulled on my stockings. Knees are a very strange part of the anatomy. Mine are too bony for my liking. As I contemplated my knees, I thought of the mystery I have not yet solved. My husband Gerald went missing, presumed dead, four years ago.
Like a sleepwalker, I allowed his and my family to persuade me into claiming insurance, transferring the house into my name, and drawing down his legacy. Financially, I am secure. I do the things we humans have devised to find some meaning in life. The sleepwalking is at an end, yet my world stays out of joint.
Try as I might, I have not yet been able to find an eyewitness to Gerald's last moments, or to discover the circumstances of his death.
The only news of him, if you could call it that, can be summed up in a few words. Captain Gerald Shackleton ofthe Royal Medical Corps was last seen in the second week of April, 1918 on a road near Villiers-Bretonneux, following heavy bombardment. There had been gas in the valley and many casualties. Gerald had taken up position in a quarry, his stretchers and supplies stored in a large cave. He had written to me that there was so little he could do in a first aid post - just make the men feel better for having him there. A shell hit the quarry. His stretcher-bearers were killed and supplies destroyed. The few men that were left set off to walk to Amiens. I tracked down a lieutenant who spoke to Gerald on the road. The lieutenant said that there was barrage after barrage. Somebody must have seen Gerald again, just once. Somebody must know what happened.
Four years on, one side of my brain knows he is dead. The other side goes on throwing up questions.
It was after Gerald went missing that I began to undertake investigations for other women. I have uncovered some clinching detail about a husband or son, some eyewitness account from a friend or comrade. As late as 1920, I tracked down a soldier who had lost his memory, and reunited him with his family. One officer I traced last December remembered only too well who he was and from where he hailed. He had simply decided to turn his back on family and friends and begin a new life in Crays Foot, cycling to work each day at the Kent District Bank.
I wake in the night sometimes, startled, with the sudden thought that Gerald may still be somewhere on this earth - not dead but damaged and abandoned.
Searching for people and information, sifting through the ashes of war's aftermath, drew me deeper into sleuthing. Where I failed for myself, I succeeded for others. It's something useful I can do.
The enticing aroma of fried bacon drifted up the stairs, snuffing out my reverie and propelling me towards the wardrobe.
Opening the wardrobe door makes me groan. I can pounce on something wonderful, like the pleated silk Delphos robe, my elegant black dress, stylish Coco Chanel suit and the belted dress with matching cape that you can't get a coat over. These outfits are squashed by pre-war skirts, shortened to calf-length, divided cycling skirt, and the shabby coat I wore when setting off with the other Voluntary Aid Detachment women and girls from Leeds railway station back in the mists of time. Fortunately I have several afternoon dresses. Mrs Sugden and I peruse the 'Dress of the Day' in the Leeds Herald. She can make a fair copy of almost anything and I am an excellent assistant.
I pulled on my favourite skirt and took a pale-green blouse from the drawer, vowing to shop this very week and become highly stylish. I topped off my outfit with a short military-style belted jacket. To go downstairs in anything less substantial would draw Mrs Sugden's warning to 'Never cast a clout till May goes out'.
Glancing in the mirror, I brushed at my hair. Before the war, I wore it long. In some ways long tresses made life easier, except on bath night, but I shan't grow it again. If hair could speak, I suspect it would express a preference for length. It takes against me and has to be forced with water and brush into lying down.
After breakfast at the kitchen table, I poured a second cup of tea and reached for the post.
Mrs Sugden busied herself at the kitchen sink. She has a look of Edith Sitwell, with the high forehead and long nose people associate with intelligence and haughtiness. She turned her head and primed me in her usual fashion. 'You've only two proper letters. One from your mam.'
It would not amuse my mother to be called 'your mam'.
I slit open my mother's letter first because it would be bound to contain instructions of some kind.
Mother reminded me that she had booked our railway tickets to London for 11 April, a week on Tuesday. I like Aunt Berta and wouldn't want to miss her birthday shindig. She and Uncle Albert live in Chelsea, in a house that expands as you enter.
'Don't bring that same black dress,' Mother wrote. 'You have worn it for the last three years. And before you say you will wear the Delphos robe, don't forget who passed it on to you and that it is practically an antique. We will shop in London but before that I will catch the train to Leeds this coming Monday. You and I will visit Marshalls for an evening gown. It is time for a burst of colour.'
I'm sure there must have been a time when I liked shopping for clothes. Hmm, Monday. Today was Saturday. It might not be so bad. I could do that. Would have to do it. Yet ... I might as well admit now that my aversion to buying a new evening gown is compounded by the totally illogical feeling that if Gerald does by some miracle come back, and we go out to celebrate, I ought to be wearing something he will recognise. I know that makes me irrational and a suitable case for treatment but there it is.
The brown envelope held my application form for the 1922 All British Photographic Competition, closing date 30 June. I have been a keen photographer since Aunt Berta and Uncle Albert bought me a Brownie Outfit for my twentieth birthday. I still remember the delight in cutting the string, folding back the brown paper, opening the cardboard box and discovering item after item of magical equipment. There was the sturdy box camera, 'capable of taking six 3¼ x 2¼ inch pictures without re-loading', the Daylight Developing Box, papers, chemicals, glass measuring jug and the encouraging statement that here was 'everything necessary for a complete beginner to produce pictures of a high degree of excellence'. I subscribe to the Amateur Photographer magazine and occasionallyattend the slide shows and discussions of the local club here in Headingley but have never yet entered a competition.
'I think I shall enter this photographic contest, Mrs Sugden.'
She peered over my shoulder as she picked up the teapot. 'Why shouldn't you? You're at it often enough. Just don't ask me to pose.'
She made a dash for the kitchen door, as though I might whip out a camera there and then and tie her to a chair.
With almost three months to the closing date, I would have plenty of time to choose a really good print of one of my old photographs, or to find a new subject. Most of all I like taking photographs of people, people absorbed in doing something, or just being themselves.
Through the window I watched Mrs Sugden empty the teapot. She does not tip tea leaves on her dung heap; that must remain pure. What a challenge it would be to photograph a pile of manure danced on by flies and bluebottles and to do it so vividly and with such art that viewers of that picture would pinch their nostrils. Perhaps not.
I left the fattest letter until last.
Tabitha Braithwaite has a neat, sloping hand like a schoolgirl's. She gives letter Ls a generous loop. An amateur analyser of handwriting might say she was a generous person, and that would be true.
Her missive covered several sheets, the handwriting becoming larger with each page. As I read it, I forgot to breathe. Our paths had crossed twice during the war, when we were with the Voluntary Aid Detachment. Since then we had met at the opening of the Cavendish Club in Queen Anne House. We were both huge supporters of a club for VAD women in London. Since then we had exchanged letters at Christmas. It must have been in one of my letters that I told her about my sleuthing and the success I have had in finding missing persons.
I had no idea Tabitha had carried such a burden all this time. Not once had she breathed a word about her own personal anxieties and her loss. The gist of her letter was this: her father went missing in August, 1916, a month after her brother was killed on the Somme. Now she is about to marry, and has this great desire that is sending her half-mad. She has a picture in her mind of her father, walking her down the aisle. The wedding will be on Saturday, 6 May at a church in Bingley.
I read the letter again, searching for an explanation as to why she had waited over six and a half years before deciding to instigate a search for her absent parent. Of course, that word came up, that little three-letter word that speared us all. War. But Mr Joshua Braithwaite was a civilian, master of a mill.
The war slowed down normal life. In peacetime if a man went missing, boulders would be rolled back to find him. In wartime, men without uniform seemed less important. Mr Joshua Braithwaite should have been an exception. Between the lines of her letter, I sensed a feeling of shame attaching to the situation. This would explain her reluctance to talk about it.
Mrs Sugden came back into the kitchen and rinsed the teapot under the tap. 'Anything interesting, madam?'
She calls me madam when she is being nosy. I swear she senses when I have a new case about to begin. She can be a great help and is the soul of discretion.
I heard myself sigh. The letter troubled me. 'It's a request for help,' I said quietly. 'Sounds like an impossible situation.'
Mrs Sugden pulled out the chair and sat down opposite me. She leaned forward, folding her hands.
'It's from a Miss Braithwaite. We first met at a hospital in Leeds during the war, then again in France.'
I couldn't call Tabitha Braithwaite a great chum as we didn't know each other all that well, but what we'd beenthrough gave us a special bond. 'It's about her father, a mill owner who disappeared in 1916.'
For once, Mrs Sugden didn't try to read the letter upside down but gazed at me with that look of piercing sympathy that makes me wonder who she lost as a young woman. I have never asked.
Mrs Sugden's eyebrows lifted the high forehead into a thoughtful crease. 'And after all this time she wants you to find him?'
I looked again at the last page of Tabitha's letter. 'Yes. But that's not all. She wants to engage me in a professional capacity. To reimburse me for expenses incurred she says, and to pay above my usual rate because of the short notice.'
For a moment, Mrs Sugden and I sat in stunned silence. I have helped relatives search out missing persons as a kindness, not a paid service. I could not decide whether to be thrilled, terrified or insulted by the offer of money.
To save Mrs Sugden the strain of upside-down reading, I turned the letter towards her. Frowning, spectacles perched low on her nose, she read. Her thin work-worn fingers, nails ridged with age, turned the pages slowly. She is a fast reader as a rule, devouring novels and exchanging sensational paperbacks with a vast network of female book lovers across Headingley and Woodhouse.
When she had turned over the last sheet, she bit her lower lip as if to aid thought. 'Well then, at last someone's doing the right thing.'
'Searching for her father?'
She pushed the letter back to me across the table. 'That an' all. But it's her offering to pay you for your trouble that impresses me. You're recognised. You're making a name for yourself.'
'It's only because she knows me.'
'And knows how you come up trumps.'
What bad timing. I would love to help TabithaBraithwaite, but with Mother's shopping expedition, and the following week off to London, it just couldn't be done.
'I read something of this case at the time.' Mrs Sugden's memory never fails to impress. She mops up newspaper stories like a blotter dabs ink. 'Wasn't he one of them Bradford millionaires?'
'Not exactly Bradford is it? The Braithwaite mill is in Bridgestead, between Bingley and Keighley.'
She made a dismissive gesture. 'Same difference. It's all out in that direction.'
'What do you remember about the case, Mrs Sugden?'
'It's a long time back. A lot's happened in the last six years.' She took off her spectacles and polished the lenses on her apron. 'I do recall my surprise that a man such as Mr Braithwaite should get hisself in bother.'
'What kind of bother?'
'You couldn't get a proper tale out of it. Just the feeling that there was more to it than met the eye. I do recall it was around the time of the tragic explosion at Low Moor. A cousin of mine was one of the firemen who lost his life.'
She picked up the morning paper and slapped it down in annoyance. 'Look at that. Just look at that.'
Her bony finger accused an item headed "The Varsity Boat Race Name the Crews". 'Typical,' she said. 'They can name a bunch of young rowers, but did they name my cousin and the other firemen who lost their lives? They did not. Didn't even say where the explosion happened.'
'We had censorship. You couldn't read a weather report, in case it helped the enemy.'
'Dozens of working people lose their lives, no names no pack drill. One toff goes off the rails and we hear about that all right.'
If Mrs Sugden could edit The Times, she would make it very clear what was news and what was not.
She opened the kitchen drawer. 'But if the lass wantsyou to find her dad ...' Rooting among the bottle openers, string, tape, sealing wax and tape measures, she found a jotter and a stub of pencil. 'I better scratch out details of where you're going. Just to be on't safe side. No doubt your mam'll be turning that telephone red hot.'
'I don't see how I can help Tabitha, at least not before her wedding. She's getting married in ...' I consulted the letter. 'Five weeks.' I watched Mrs Sugden copy down Tabitha Braithwaite's address and telephone number. 'Obviously I'd like to help her. But people must have looked for him at the time. The trail will be stone cold.'
What I didn't add was that it terrified me to be thought of as a professional sleuth, accepting payment and expenses. Now I half regretted boasting to Tabitha that I traced the errant officer to the Kent bank when a professional investigator had failed.
It would be fraudulent to take money from Tabitha. I'm not a proper investigator, just stubborn, and sometimes lucky. My usual contacts for tracing missing soldiers were through the regiments. Officers and men were always willing to help. This was different. Yet the challenge of Tabitha's request pleased me. If I could find out what happened to Joshua Braithwaite, a civilian with no regimental links to exploit, a trail gone cold, it would be a real achievement. It might change me in some way. I'd have an entitlement, would earn respect. As it is, I'm a sort of lady bountiful of the dead end. The person a wife or mother turns to when she does not know how to find something out for herself, or when all lines of enquiry turn cold.
So why shouldn't I take on a difficult task and accept money?
It might at least excuse me from short-notice dress-shopping trips.
Mrs Sugden raised her high forehead, creating a perfect set of horizontal lines. 'You've said yes already.'
'No I haven't.'
'I can see it in your eyes. You can't resist.'
I tucked Tabitha's letter into the inside pocket of my jacket. 'It won't hurt to look into it. Since you remember reading about Joshua Braithwaite in the newspaper, I'll go to the Herald and see whether I can unearth that article you mentioned.'
And any others that there may have been, I thought to myself. I would grab a notebook, and cycle to the newspaper offices. Touch of swift pedalling and I could be there in twenty minutes.
Mrs Sugden brightened. She likes me to be out of the way for an hour or two. It leaves her free to lavish attention on the dung heap, which receives the contents of her chamber pot.
'What do I say if your mam rings?' she asked.
DYING IN THE WOOL. Copyright © 2009 by Frances McNeil. All rights reserved.