The Chilbury Ladies' Choir(9)

By: Jennifer Ryan




I suppose Hattie’s always been the sensible one, but she seems so annoyingly settled. I remember when we were young, the three of us in the Pixie Ring shouting, We are as strong as the snakes, as fierce as the wolves, and as free as the stars.

“I’m still the same person as before,” she said suddenly, as if reading my mind—funny how she does that—and I knew she hadn’t changed at all.

I thought about Hattie having a baby as I walked home. I’m not sure I’d like being a mother, but perhaps it isn’t as bad as all that.

Silvie came into my room when I was home, her quiet little feet treading carefully to the dressing table. She scoured it for treasures, asking me what various items were. Sometimes I make up stories about them: a necklace from the deep, a lipstick lost by a princess.

“Do you like Mr. Slater?”

“How do you know about that?”

“Kitty told me,” she said simply. “I hope he is kind. Like you.”

I smiled and gave her a cuddle. I’ll have to make sure Kitty regrets telling my secrets, and doesn’t hear any more.

Do write soon, Angie, as I heartily miss your mischief making. I do wish they’d send me to London with you, although now that I have Mr. Slater to tantalize me, perhaps not quite yet.

Much love,





Venetia





3 CHURCH ROW,

CHILBURY,

KENT.

Thursday, 4th April, 1940

Dear Clara,

The deal is done. We’ll be wealthy beyond our wildest dreams, dear sister. I went to meet the Brigadier, as arranged, in the deserted stone outhouse in the wood.

He was already there, crossly getting out his silver pocket watch. “You’re late.”

“Am I?” I smiled politely. “What a shame!”

He snorted at the unmistakable irony in my voice. “Well? Do you think you can do it?”

“Swap the babies, you mean?” I kept the smile off my face, although I still found it hilarious that he was suggesting just that. “Nip between the births and make both women believe they gave birth to a different baby?”

“Yes, damn it, woman,” he shouted. “Or should I find someone else?”

“I doubt you’ll find anyone as trustworthy.” Then I added with a little laugh, “Although Mrs. Tilling has midwife training, if you’d like to ask her?”

“Don’t be absurd,” he bellowed. “Just answer me. Will you do it?”

“Depends how much we’re talking.”



He snorted like a disgruntled bull. “I’ll give you five thousand.”

I stopped breathing for a split second. Five thousand pounds is a vast sum—ten times what I earn in a year. But I wasn’t willing to leave it there. The old rascal is worth far more than that. I’ve seen the finery, the crystal chandeliers, the crown sodding jewels.

“I wouldn’t be able to work again, and I’d need to leave the village afterward,” I said, looking as sorrowful as I could. “I’d need twenty to give it a thought.”

He was furious. “Eight thousand then. That should be plenty for a woman like you.”

“A woman like me?” My face shot up to meet his gaze, and I raised an eyebrow. “A woman like me can kick up a good storm, you know?”

“Are you threatening me?” he hissed. “If you are, I’ll deny it. They’ll never believe your word over mine.”

“Don’t count on it, Brigadier,” I said. “The days of you toffs being in charge are long gone.”

“I’ll get you strung up for something, you mark my words.”

“Ten and I’ll do it,” I said resolutely. “Provided I get the money regardless if it works out or not.”

“You’ll do exactly what I tell you, Miss Paltry, or you’ll never work here again. Do you hear me?” He came up close. “You’ll get your money when I get my boy.”

“You give me the money beforehand, and if no boys are born, there ain’t a jot I can do about it. But if there is a boy”—I smiled with enticement—“I will make him yours.”

He clenched his fists. He hadn’t been bargaining for this. Since arriving here five years ago I have been careful to build a reputation of even dealings, especially following my miscalculations in that village in Somerset. (You’ll remember how they hounded me out after I gave wart patients the wrong ointment that resulted in purple-colored nether regions. It caused three marriage breakups, a major punch-up, the disappearance of a young woman, and at least two angry men trying to hunt me down.) No, Clara. I’ve played my game carefully in Chilbury, hushed up my past, played by their rules.



Now it’s time to reap the rewards.