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                                                                                                                                                                                                                Back to Poor House Lane Series

The Woman from Heartbreak House

extract - Chapter One

Kendal 1919
‘How can I stay calm?’ The high treble voice rang the entire length of the landing, right to the small room at the back of the house where Callum was sitting hunched on his bed with his fingers in his ears, trying not to listen to their row. ‘Would you, if you’d just put your bare feet on to a slimy toad?’

‘It isn’t slimy, and it’s a frog not a toad,’ Georgie shouted back, hooting with laughter.

‘I don’t care what it is, it shouldn’t be in my bed!’

A fair enough point, Callum thought, pulling the pillow over his head.

As if having the woman who’d abducted him back in this house wasn’t bad enough, he now had her children to contend with as well.

Georgie was forever up to some stupid schoolboy prank or other, like tying tin cans to the cat’s tail or putting that frog in his sister’s bed this evening. Callum could hear Bunty … (stupid name) … still screaming like a banshee and running all over the landing. Heaven help Georgie when she finally catches up with him, Callum thought, without too much sympathy.

She’d barely glanced at him since arriving earlier in the week in time for the funeral, except to look at him down her nose when her mother introduced him - if you could call Lucy’s offhand remark an introduction: ‘and this is the workhouse boy.’

Bunty had not responded, not even to say hello, but there’d been curiosity in her eyes, and, surprisingly, sympathy. He was sure of it.

Jack had snorted with laughter, but then he was a pompous, middle-class prat. Full of his own importance, he looked upon himself as the man of the family. Even the way he dressed in cravats and three piece suits worn with silk waistcoats, made him seem like a forty year old instead of a boy of eighteen. And he was so arrogant! Callum could hear him now lecturing his younger brother, scolding his sister, just as if she had encouraged Georgie to play this practical joke on her.

The door burst open and Bunty burst in, flinging herself on Callum’s bed in a paroxysm of tears. ‘You’ll protect me, won’t you? I hate to be teased! It’s not fair, two against one.’

He gazed at her in utter astonishment while she turned upon him a pair of blue eyes puffy with crying in a round face that was crimson with fury. She was a plump girl with untidy, mouse-brown hair. For once her mouth had lost its perpetual pout as she pursed her full lips tightly together in temper. Nobody could call her beautiful, yet there was something about Bunty which was appealing. Perhaps it was the sense of humanity so obviously missing in the rest of her family.

Callum glanced anxiously at the door, which she had quickly closed after her. ‘I’m not sure I can do owt,’ he said. He preferred to keep himself to himself and avoid becoming embroiled in their constant rows and upsets.

‘Oh, but Georgie makes me so mad I could kill him!’

‘Don’t say that.’

She looked up, startled, and then the fury in her eyes instantly died, to be replaced with compassion. ‘Oh, I didn’t think. I’m so sorry. Do you miss your father terribly?’

‘He weren’t me father. He adopted me. Mam came to tackle him about her brother being sacked, and he offered to take me, and herself as nursemaid, rather than have me starve to death. Then one afternoon some years later I was snatched and taken away to that farm. I were nobbut a nipper, so I never really got the chance to get to know him that well.

She seemed to consider all of this for a long moment. ‘It must have been awful for you. I don’t remember much about my father either. He died when I was quite young. Did you hate it there, at the farm?’

‘Aye, I did. Not the farm so much as the people, the Brocklebanks. I quite liked the animals, they were my friends.’ Callum could have kicked himself the minute the words were out of his mouth. Heaven help him, what would she think of a chap who had sheep for friends? But Bunty wasn’t laughing. Quite the contrary, she seemed to be agreeing with him.

‘I used to have a cat called Tiddles.’ She gave a half smile. ‘I wasn’t a particularly imaginative child. Anyway, it disappeared, and then I discovered that Georgie had swapped it for a jar of worms from a friend. I hated him for that. Tiddles was my friend. I never had many either, as a child. I was away at school, you know, and people there prefer you to be pretty or terribly clever or rich, and I was none of those things. And I couldn’t – couldn’t make things happen like Jack can, or make fun of everything as Georgie does. And I’m not beautiful like Mummy. I was always the odd one out. Do you see?’

They looked at each in complete understanding and then Callum solemnly nodded. ‘Aye, I do.’

She was nibbling on her finger nails, as she so often did. ‘I was the one always feeling awkward, trying not to listen when they called me names like “fatty”, or “chubby-chops”. I hate being called names and made to feel stupid.’

‘The Brocklebanks never called me by a name at all. I was always “you” to them. “Hey you,” they’d say, “go and fetch me t’shovel.” Or “Hey you, go and feed t’sheep. You do this. You do that.”’

She looked at him, round-eyed with sympathy. ‘It must have been awful, having no family of your own and being bullied like that. Kate blames mummy, doesn’t she? No, you don’t have to answer that. I suggest we don’t talk about what our parents did, don’t you agree? Then perhaps you and me could be friends. I’d like that very much. Would you?’

Callum looked at her in surprise. Even now that his life was a thousand times better, he still didn’t have many friends, beyond Flora and his mam, of course, and what Bunty said did make sense. Living in the past did you no good at all. ‘Aye,’ he agreed, surprising himself with his fervour. ‘That’d be grand.’

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