The Secrets of Ironbridge
Returning to her mother's birthplace at the age of eighteen, Beatrice Ashford encounters a complex family she barely knows. Her great-grandmother Queenie adores her, but the privileged social position of Beatrice's family as masters of the local brickworks begins to make her uncomfortable.
And then she meets Owen Malone: handsome, different, refreshing - and from a class beneath her own. They fall for each other fast, but an old family feud and growing industrial unrest threatens to drive them apart.
Can they overcome their different backgrounds? And can Beatrice make amends for her family's past?
Queenie wondered where she was buried. A pauper’s grave, no doubt. But which sorrowful patch of ground? Queenie pictured her now, a pitiful pile of bones in a crowded pit. She imagined the girl’s spirit rising from its haphazard burial place, delighted to be free of its chaotic tumble of earth and human remains. Where would it go? Perhaps it would revisit the scenes and sights of its childhood: some sort of poor man’s hovel where it was born, maybe a patch of ground where it used to play with other urchins. But once it was done with those, inevitably, it would come to the King house, to Southover. After all, the spirit was only a young girl when she had come there as a maid-of-all-work. And what if the spirit of this servant – this Betsy Blaize – were to come to Queenie’s house now? What would she see? Even as she wondered this Queenie questioned why she had conjured the memory of Blaize’s spirit after all these years of thinking of it rarely. Out of sight, out of mind. It must be because the house was draped in worry, waiting as it was for the death of her son.
She shivered and glanced at the closed curtains in her bedroom. In her mind’s eye, she saw the spirit rise from its scrappy piece of earth across the river, floating up, up into the night sky. Over the tops of trees and industry it would go, seeing the fires of the furnaces emblazon the darkness with their hellish colours. It would skim fleetly over factories and forges, lime kilns and waggonways, pumping engines and brickworks. It might circle the pitheads and the men labouring below them in the bowels of the earth. They would never see the spirit that passed over them, buried as they were like her body, or what was left of it. Onwards, to the river itself, the mighty Severn that scoured out the Gorge and rushed through it, relentless and temperamental. The spirit would travel its length to reach the iron bridge – it would have to visit the site of its creation, after all, the place where Betsy Blaize the girl had carried her newborn child, handed it to a passing Quaker and died. Across the iron bridge it would fly, up over the houses and shops and streets, all good folk sleeping peacefully in their beds, their mattresses soft or hard depending on their gentility. Up the hill to the great house that stood above the town, frowning down upon it. Southover, the house of the hated Kings.
Queenie envisaged the spirit approaching the house from the gravel drive, making no sound as it skimmed the stones, lifting up to the window of Mr Ralph King Junior, Queenie’s son, master of the house and figurehead of the King businesses, struck down in his early sixties by sickness. If it glanced through the crack in the curtains, it would see the deathly pale face of Ralph sleeping fitfully in his bed, groaning in pain all the night through. But of course Ralph wouldn’t be her final destination. It wasn’t him who had wronged her. The spirit would float on, coming around the eastern corner of the house, slowing now, closer and closer, to arrive at its destination: Queenie’s own window.
Queenie felt a chill down her spine again and the lamp on her desk guttered like a spent candle. She adjusted her favourite cashmere shawl closer about her shoulders. She had lost some weight in recent years and felt the cold more keenly. Her devoted lady’s maid, Jenkins, kept trying to feed her up, complaining that Queenie would soon look like a skeleton if she didn’t fatten up a bit. She stood up and walked to the window, then hesitated. A sudden, sharp fear came of what might appear behind it. She scolded herself for her silliness and yanked the curtain open. She saw only the night look back at her, blank and black. The vague shapes of trees moved mysteriously at the edge of the lawns. She did not look at the family graveyard, instead turning briskly and returning to her desk. Today, the doctor had advised Queenie to ‘gather your family around you’. The others were here – her grandson Cyril and Ralph’s wife Benjamina – neither caring much whether Ralph made it through the night or not. Indeed, Queenie suspected they positively hoped he wouldn’t, so they could move on to the next stages of their lives. But there was family not present that ought to be.
Thus, she had sat down to pen this letter to the one person who was absent, who was over the sea, in a foreign city for nigh on twenty years now, her granddaughter Margaret. She pictured her now, her youth having left her, approaching middle age. Had the years been kind to her, Queenie wondered, or would she have aged badly? Margaret’s relative poverty, as a teacher of English and pianoforte, would not afford her the King lifestyle, that was certain. Perhaps it would be a blessing to her to return home again, at last, after all these years. Perhaps she would welcome it, after all she had struggled through, as a widow and a lone mother to a daughter. Or perhaps she still considered her loss of riches a small price to pay to be free of the King family. Then, Queenie’s thoughts coalesced around another, the girl, her great-granddaughter, Beatrice. Queenie had never met her. Would the girl favour her pale, yellow-haired mother or her dark, gypsy-eyed father? Queenie would soon find out if the answer to this letter were in the affirmative. She set to finish it, dipping her pen in the black ink and looping it out across the page in her neat hand.
As she wrote the words ‘your father is close to death’, she felt that chill again and hurriedly glanced back at the strip of window open to the dark night. There was a flicker of something there. Or was there? Just a spatter of rain. She stood once more and marched to the window, jerking the curtain over to shut out the night. But as she did it, she knew that it was never that simple to shut out memories – or guilt.
Queenie imagined the spirit she had conjured gliding down from her window and taking its customary place beside Queenie’s long-dead husband’s grave, standing beside it, looking up at the house. Watching and waiting in the coal-dark night, scored by the rain that fell across the King lawns and into the wild woodland beyond.
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