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The Silent Stars Go By
Author: Sally Nicholls

 

Crowshurst Farm

 Crowshurst

 North Yorkshire

 9th December 1919

 Dear Margot,

 I do not wish to be a millstone round your neck, and if you really would rather have nothing more to do with me, I won’t be such an ass as to insist that you uphold your promises or anything beastly like that. But I think it only polite to inform you that I shall be coming home for Christmas and we are likely – in the usual run of things – to find ourselves somewhat in one another’s pockets.

 We may no longer be lovers, but I would hate to think we were ever anything but friends. I cannot claim to understand why you chose to ignore my previous communications, but I trust that you have your reasons. I must say, I think you might have the decency to tell me what they are.

 If you have heard any ill of me, please allow me the chance to explain myself. Though I can’t imagine what the devil it is you might have heard.

 I remain your most obedient etc (truly, Margot, I do),

 Harry Singer

 Margot Allen sat in the corner of the third-class compartment carriage and read this letter for the fifteenth time. Her mother had forwarded it without comment from the vicarage. The wheels of the train went clackerty-clack, clackerty-clack over the tracks, the little steam heater blasted hot air into the compartment, and outside the windows the Vale of York swept past, all grey and dark green beneath the midwinter sky.

 Her small hands, in pale, rather worn, leather gloves, rested on her skirt, which was the exact blue of her eyes. Her blonde hair was perfectly arranged. The darns in her overcoat were almost – but not quite – invisible.

 Margot was nineteen, but right now she felt herself fully forty-five at least.

 The letter, like those which had preceded it, remained unanswered.

 I trust that you have your reasons...

 She leaned her head back onto the seat.

 Clearly things couldn’t go on like this. This secret should never have been kept from him. One way or another, they were going to have to face it.

 

 

Jocelyn

 The station at Thwaite was a one-platform village halt, with a single sad-looking flowerpot and not even a shelter from the wind. Jocelyn was waiting on the platform, and Margot felt a sudden, unexpected rush of love at the sight of her – her hair falling down out of her hat and her hand-me-down coat hanging rather lumpishly at the back. Darling Jos. It was lovely to be somewhere where people loved you.

 The sisters embraced.

 ‘Hullo!’

 ‘Hullo, yourself. Where’s Mother?’

 ‘Presiding over schoolroom tea. Ernest’s train got in just after luncheon. You remember what a beastly lot of fuss there always is.’

 ‘Heavens, yes.’ They exchanged rueful glances. ‘You’d think no child had ever been sent away to school before Mother’s boys. Stephen home yet?’

 ‘Not till next week. Is that all your things? Father’s got the car this afternoon, so we’d better find a porter to take them up to the house.’

 ‘Fancy us with a car!’ Margot gave her younger sister a real smile. ‘Oh, look – there’s a porter there! I say!’

 The suitcases safely handed over, the sisters set off through the village towards home.

 How lovely it was to be back. Each time, the feeling of home surprised her; the clear air, so different to the coal-smoke of Durham. The dales above the village, and the fields below, the particularly Yorkshire scent of frost and sheep-farming countryside. Home.

 The vicarage was a rambling early Victorian affair. It had been built in the days when vicars were expected to produce eight or nine children for the good of the Empire and – Margot’s mother often said – had been bleeding its occupants dry ever since.

 It was a huge, draughty building, for ever in a state of general disrepair. The chimneys smoked, the windows rattled, and it was furnished with a mixture of dilapidated odds and ends, left behind by previous vicars and their families. It was always cold, even in the middle of summer. In winter, ice froze in the bedroom jugs and on the windowpanes, and everyone had chilblains, despite untold layers of woollen underwear and petticoats. Four children still at home and the perpetual impossibility of finding servants, on top of her duties as the vicar’s wife, meant their mother lived in a state of permanent exhaustion. The garden was a tangled wilderness of fruit trees, chickens and scraggly vegetables.

 The Allen children were accepted eccentrics. Bright, bookish and insular, their childhood had been one of private games and fierce alliances. Margot had always been the odd one out. While her siblings were angular and awkward and – why not say it? – plain, Margot was something of a beauty. This, in a family which considered humility to be next to godliness, was not always an advantage. Margot was not stupid – none of the Allen children were – but she’d had a reputation as ‘difficult’ from early childhood.

 Margot remembered this as an intense determination for something that was ‘hers’. Toys in the Allen nursery were generally held communally, clothes and other possessions were handed down to younger siblings, and a common front was expected to be presented. Family honour was so important that Margot had once grumbled that anyone would think they were a duke’s children instead of a clergyman’s.

 To be different was... not exactly frowned upon, but definitely considered ‘up yourself’. ‘She’s no better than she ought to be,’ was one of Nana’s greatest slurs. If a vicarage child did well at something – and they generally were somewhere near the top of their classes – they were expected not to make a fuss of it, to say ‘Thank you’ for any praise, and politely change the subject. Demurring, ‘Oh, I’m rotten at Latin really’ was considered ‘affected’, but boasting was considered ‘stuck-up’ and was even worse. Margot could still remember bouncing home aged nine delighted because a stranger in the street had described her as ‘a most striking child’. She had been firmly sat upon by her older brother Stephen, and told by her father to ‘Consider the lilies of the field.’

 ‘The ones that toil not, neither do they spin?’ she’d said. ‘Does that mean I’m excused chores?’

 Margot knew she was considered stuck-up. She had been christened Margaret, a name she had always hated, and had changed it to Margot aged fourteen, refusing to answer to Margaret until her family had had to admit defeat. She knew Stephen and Jocelyn and even Ruth had always considered her something of an ass. None of them cared about how they looked. But Margot had always loved beautiful things. When the Hendersons at the manor house would bring weekend guests to church, she would sit and stare at their dresses. There was never enough money to go around in the vicarage. Margot had spent her childhood in hand-me-downs from various cousins and home-made creations run up on the family Singer by Mother.

 She had an eye for colour and line, and a determination to look well. Even now, after all her troubles, she still kept her hair carefully smoothed back, her eyebrows plucked, her fingernails manicured.

 Nowadays, that girl seemed very long ago and far away. Nowadays, Margot wasn’t difficult. She wasn’t much of anything, really. Sometimes she felt as though all her personality and contrariness had been washed away, leaving something limp and wet-raggish and spinsterish, if you could be such a thing at nineteen.

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