Sunday 29 November 2015

Excerpt: Home is Where the Heart is by Freda Lightfoot

If Cathie had been hoping to see jolly faces in funny hats, hear the sound of carols being sung or played on a piano, or even laughter resonating through the house as this was Christmas Day, she was instantly disappointed. There wasn’t even any sign of Christmas decorations, save for a stately tree set in a corner of the large, spacious hall, sparingly bedecked with baubles. Nor was Alex waiting there to welcome her. The door was opened by an elderly manservant who took her coat and hat before leading her upstairs to the drawing room. Cathie trembled with nerves. This was not at all how she’d hoped to spend Christmas, nor had she imagined that Alex’s home would be so grand. How na├»ve of her to assume he would be happy to spend it at her own humble abode.

As she entered, the entire family, seated on leather armchairs set around a stunningly beautiful panelled room, all turned to gaze upon her in silence. No one spoke, or offered the compliments of the season. Was her Christmas rose dress too garish? Did it not suit her strawberry blonde curls, which suddenly seemed to be falling over her flushed cheeks in a scraggy mess, making Cathie feel even more uncomfortable. A crystal chandelier hung from the high ceiling, seeming to freeze the scene in its bright light, which even the flames from the coal fire burning in the stately fireplace failed to warm. Then springing from his chair by the window, Alex strode over to put an arm about her shoulders and give her a quick kiss on the cheek. Cathie smiled up at him, sighing with relief.

‘Merry Christmas,’ she murmured.

‘And to you, sweetheart. Come and meet my folks.’

Leading her by the hand around the room rather like a dog on a lead, he introduced her, one by one, to his family, a process she found totally confusing. There were so many of them that she instantly forgot every name and relationship the instant it was given. She had no difficulty, however, remembering his stern-faced father. Doctor Victor Ryman appeared quite old, stockily built, and really rather grand, as Brenda had told her he was. The very arrogance of his stance filled her with a sense of foreboding. He offered no compliments of the season either, nor even a welcoming smile, merely muttered good day through clenched teeth, giving her a brief nod.

Alex’s mother, Dorothy, a tall elegant lady, smiled somewhat coldly as she offered Cathie a slender hand sparkling with jewelled rings and bracelets. And his sister, Thelma, a perfect beauty with a sheath of glossy black hair that fell upon her bare shoulders, was wearing the kind of long stylish gown one would only expect to see worn by Rita Hayworth in such films as Cover Girl.

‘It looks as if your family have lived here for generations,’ Cathie politely remarked, admiring the range of portraits depicting Alex’s ancestors that were hung upon the silk-covered walls. She felt utterly overwhelmed and intimidated by the apparent high status of his family. What kind of home had she stepped into?

‘Not really, we’ve moved about quite a lot, and the portraits come with us wherever we go, don’t they Pa?’ his sister said, glancing with a shrug and a smile at her father.

‘Indeed, even to India,’ he agreed. ‘They are our heritage, which confirm who we are.’

Did she have such a thing as heritage, whatever that might mean exactly? Cathie wondered. It seemed highly unlikely as her mother rarely spoke of her own family, and they tended to get through life by taking one day at a time.

‘I believe you live close to Potato Wharf, Miss Morgan?’

‘Cathie, please.’ How formal everyone sounded. ‘We live near the River Medlock actually, but in that general area, yes,’ she agreed, not wishing to be too specific considering the sad state of their street right now.

‘Poor you, so glad I wasn’t born round here.’

Her brother gave a hollow laugh, which to Cathie’s ears sounded faintly embarrassed. ‘It’s not a bad thing to be Manchester-born.’

‘How can you say that when you were born in Jaipur, as were the rest of us while Pa was working for the rajah out there? Of all the wonderful places we’ve lived, I ask myself daily how on earth we ended up living in this dreadful city?’

‘Manchester is a wonderful city,’ Cathie bravely stated. ‘Or was before the war destroyed so much of it. As is Castlefield.’

‘What a silly name,’ Thelma retorted. ‘I don’t see any sign of a castle.’

‘I think it had something to do with the Romans who once occupied this area, so maybe they had a castle or a fort of some sort. It used to be called Castle-in-the-Field back in medieval times when even then Manchester was a famous trading port, or so my father told me. But over time the name of this district was shortened to Castlefield. I’m quite proud to be a Mancunian, actually.’

‘Brave of you to take such a stand, dear, although you didn’t have any choice on where you were born, so you have my sympathy.’ Thelma flicked her winged brows in caustic amusement before graciously moving back to her seat, leaving a cloud of Chanel perfume in her wake.

Cathie almost wished she’d kept her mouth shut.

Home Is Where the Heart Is is out now.


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