It was always going to be different. Margaret had prepared herself for that, but when she saw the house her father had rented for them she felt the first real rush of homesickness overwhelm her. Compared to the home they had so recently left, this new house was a hundred times less picturesque with its tired brick façade interposed with sash windows and paintwork which could have done with more than a little retouching. What had probably begun life as a narrow patch of garden was now concreted over to park a car off the road. Inside it was compact, despite the emptiness of the rooms, the blank whitewashed walls screaming out for colour, furniture, something to lift it from the sepulchral space it was.
They had arrived ahead of the removal men and it had only been because of Margaret’s presence of mind that the kettle and several mugs, accompanied by a small Tupperware pot of coffee granules, had been saved from being put with everything else in the lorry. Her mother certainly needed something judging by the ashen look on her face as the reality of leaving Helstone finally hit home.
“It’ll be fine,” Margaret said as she busied herself with making the coffee, aware of her mother harbouring in the centre of the kitchen with troubled eyes, her gaze drifting dismally over the tired cabinets. Meeting her mother’s eyes, Margaret summoned a bright and optimistic smile. “Once we get our things in it will feel more like home.”
Her mother sighed. The lethargy that had accompanied her for much of the journey still remained. “Why couldn’t your father have found another job closer to home?” she bemoaned, wistfully.
Margaret handed her mother one of the mugs of coffee, noticing how close to tears Maria was. They glistened in the corners of her eyes, bespeaking of the turmoil that churned inside her. “It’ll be fine,” Margaret said, realising that she was repeating herself. It was as though she were reiterating some sort of mantra. It’ll be fine…It’ll be fine…Perhaps if she said it often enough her mother might start to believe it.
“Your father seems to be in his element. I don’t think he was sorry to leave Helstone at all.”
“He wants it to be a fresh start, that’s all,” Margaret replied. She sipped her coffee, leaning back against the countertop, glad that her father was elsewhere in the house and was not privy to their conversation. She knew how it would hurt him to hear the bitterness in her mother’s voice. Taking a deep breath, she continued on. “And it is. It’s exactly that. New surroundings, new people.” She threw her mother another winning smile, desperately trying to lift the clouds that seemed to linger stubbornly above her mother’s head. “It wouldn’t be a fresh start otherwise.”
Maria stared at her daughter, thinking how alike her husband Margaret was and how so unlike her. “You sound like your father.”
Margaret shrugged. Perhaps she was more like him in some ways – certainly in this case she was. “Maybe,” she conceded. “Give it a chance, mum. If you do, you might end up thinking that Milton is actually a better place to live than Helstone.”
Her mother grimaced, her mouth twisting as though she had tasted something unpleasant, although she did not deign to comment on Margaret’s prophecy.
Over those next few days Margaret took the opportunity of exploring her new surroundings and acquainting herself with Milton. The house they were renting was, as her father had intimated, only about ten minutes by foot into the centre of town where Margaret found a wealth of mainstream shops, as well as a massive central library and numerous coffee shops. There were restaurants to suit every taste, as well as wine bars and pubs in almost every street she walked down. She even managed to find Blues, the wine bar just along the road from Adam Bell’s office, and lingered outside its entrance, thinking again about the day she had sat in the car and seen the man who had managed to burrow into her thoughts and now refused to leave them. She didn’t go inside; she wasn’t bold enough for that, but it was almost an exquisite torture to speculate about whether he was inside.
She wound her way back to the High Street, seeing the main line station that took trains off in every direction. Close to it stood the grand Victorian structure of the Milton Hotel, which had doubtlessly sprung up at about the same time as the railway. The name of the hotel was immediately familiar to her. She remembered it from the set of house keys now in possession of her father. She wondered what the significance of the key ring was in relation to the place. There must be some sort of connection, otherwise why would its name be on their key ring?
As they were eating dinner that evening, Margaret mentioned the fact that she had seen the hotel to her parents and how impressive it had looked. Her father smiled across at her, nodding sagely.
“I should have said before, I suppose, but our landlord is actually the owner of the Milton Hotel. It was through Adam’s connection with him – he’s actually his accountant – that I found this house.”
“What’s the name of our landlord then?” Margaret’s asked.
“John – John Thornton,” her father replied. “A very pleasant man.”
“Have you met him?”
“Yes, when I signed the Tenancy Agreement. I went to see him at the hotel.”
“What’s it like inside?”
“You can have a look for yourself, Margaret,” he said. “I was going to go and speak to John tomorrow about getting someone to come and have a look at the washing machine. Your mother tried it earlier and it doesn’t appear to be spinning very well.”
“It’ll take ages for those clothes to dry,” Maria muttered, casting a doubtful glance at the clothes line in the back garden where several items of clothing hung in perfect stillness.
“I’m seeing a client for most of the day tomorrow with Adam so it would be a great help if you could go for me. I would phone but I do feel a personal visit would be nicer. Besides, it’ll give you a chance to meet the man who’s helped put a roof over our heads.”
“And is being paid for it,” added Maria under her breath.
Margaret pretended not to hear her mother’s caustic words. “I’m quite happy to go if you want. I don’t mind.”
The following day she went on the errand for her father, passing into the hotel foyer to be greeted by the bright enquiring smile of a receptionist dressed in a smart navy suit. Margaret was immediately struck by how well the girl, not much older than herself, summed up the place: bright, friendly and immaculately turned out.
“May I help?” the receptionist asked as Margaret approached.
“I’ve actually come in the hope of having a quick word with Mr Thornton. I don’t suppose he’s around?”
“I can find out for you. Excuse me.” The girl went over to the telephone and punched in an extension number. Margaret heard her talking to someone. “Could I just take your name?” The receptionist looked over at Margaret.
The receptionist relayed the information to the person, presumably Mr Thornton, to whom she was speaking. The next minute she had put the phone down and came back to where Margaret stood waiting. “Mr Thornton will come down and see you in a minute. He asked if you could wait in the lounge. It’s just through there.” She indicated to the room just beyond the reception area.
“Thank you,” Margaret said graciously and made her way to the lounge to wait.
John Thornton put the phone down on Bess and pushed aside the paperwork over which he had been pouring for the past few hours. Propping his elbows up on the desk and raking his fingers through his hair, he decided then and there that this last demand on his time would be the final one before he went to lunch. He’d been at work since seven thirty and it was near on one o’clock now and he was ready for a break after what had been a hectic morning. He would go downstairs and speak to the young lady waiting for him and find out what it was she wanted, although he couldn’t quite understand why she was asking to see him and not her father with whom he had signed the tenancy. He sighed resignedly and hauled himself from his seat, stretching his body full length to ease his stiffened muscles before reaching for the jacket slung over the back of his chair. As he pulled it on his mother came bustling through the door with a pile of loose papers in her hand. The austere countenance, so well known by the entire staff of the hotel, softened as soon as she saw her son standing by his desk.
“Suggestions for menus for the Annual Mill Owners Association Dinner and various invoices.” She placed the papers in the in tray that was already full to bursting with things requiring his attention. “Are you going out?”
“One of my tenants has just turned up to talk to me,” John replied, straightening his tie. “Once I’ve seen her I’m going to go out for a while.”
“Her?” The stern brows rose in curiosity.
“Margaret Hale. She’s the daughter of the family to whom I rented 6 Winchester Way.”
“What does she want?”
“I have no idea,” John replied, glancing at the menu suggestions in his in tray briefly, determined not to be drawn into any sort of discussion with his mother. He made a mental note to speak to Nick Higgins about the menu later.
“Remember that Ann is coming to dinner with her parents tonight,” Mrs Thornton said pertinently, making John inwardly sigh.
“I’ll be there,” he said with resignation, making to leave the office, well aware of the rare warmth in his mother’s voice at the mention of Ann. If his mother had her way he’d be married to the girl by the end of the week, so keen was Hannah to have her as a daughter-in-law. “See you later.”
His office was situated, along with several others, on the first floor at one end of the hotel and was reached by a staircase that was not used by hotel guests. As he made his way down those stairs and headed towards the lounge to find Richard’s daughter, he was halted by the unwelcome but all too familiar sight of Steven, his sister Fran’s husband, skulking by the entrance to the stillroom.
Almost immediately, catching sight of John, Steven darted forward. “I want to see Fran,” he demanded. “Where is she?”
Margaret checked her watch after what seemed to have been more than five minutes, only to find that she’d been sitting waiting for nearly fifteen. Mr Thornton, whoever he was, had obviously been delayed or perhaps he had forgotten about the fact that she was waiting to speak to him. She got up from her chair and began to prowl about the room. Growing more restless, deciding to forego the notion of returning to reception in a bid to find out whether she had in fact been forgotten, Margaret wandered towards a door leading into a conservatory where tables sat in perfect readiness for tomorrow’s breakfast. Venturing further she found herself stepping into a lofty room with stripped floorboards and chandeliers suspended from the centre of three plaster roses decorating the ceiling. Apart from a neat line of tables along one wall, the room itself was bare.
It was then that she became aware of shouting: two men going hell for leather at each other just beyond a door over to her left. Wary, intrigued, Margaret advanced towards the door, the soft click of her shoes echoing cautiously against the floor. The voices rose further, becoming more aggressive, although she couldn’t actually make out with any clarity exactly what they were arguing about. Her heart began to beat more uncertainly as she finally reached her destination. It was none of her business, of course. What was going on behind those doors had nothing to do with her…and yet…Boldness, fuelled by more than a small degree of curiosity, surfaced from the hidden depths of her soul and she extended her arm out to abruptly push the door open into the stillroom which lay beyond.
She was immediately greeted by the sight of two men, one of them, his face flushed with anger, with his fist raised as if about to strike the other man.
“What the hell are you doing?” It was her voice, she knew it was hers, and yet she couldn’t believe it. Nor, for that matter, could the two men at which her words, so forcefully directed, were aimed. She saw the offending fist freeze and then drop like a dead thing to the side of its owner, the two of them falling away from each other as their attentions swivelled towards her sudden presence in the room. The air was alive with their ragged breathing, hot with the anger which they’d managed to generate between them.
“What are you doing in here? This is a private matter!” The vitriolic demand from one of the men – the taller of the pair – brought Margaret’s attention to him for the first time. As their eyes met she felt her breath catch in her throat, so much so that a frail gasp streaked involuntarily from her lips. She recognised those eyes! Several days ago she had longed to know what it would feel like to be drawn into their line of vision. Now she only wanted to shrink back from their fierceness. Could it really be the same person? She felt her skin burn with the remembrance of her thoughts on that day; at how perfect she had thought him. Since then she had been nurturing an illusion and now she was forced to watch it shatter in the face of reality. God, she had even thought about chasing after him! “Well? Who are you?”
“My name’s Margaret – Margaret Hale,” she began, her voice pitched clear and strong as she sought to defy the intimidation which he seemed to wish to thrust upon her.
“Look Thornton, I need -” Beside her the smaller man made a move forward, only to find himself stilled and silenced by Thornton’s stark glare of warning.
Margaret could only stare as the name filtered through her head. She could hardly believe it! Surely this was not the same man whom her father spoke of with such warmth and benevolence? “You’re John Thornton?”
He looked at her, a frown furrowing his dark brow. His tone was no less abrupt. “I am.”
She could so easily have cowered but something in her, something akin to the courage that had brought her into the room in the first place, rose up inside her and she tilted her chin up, daring to meet his eyes head on with impervious disgust.
“My father’s Richard Hale, one of your tenants.” Seeing those eyes narrow, she watched the recognition of her father’s name dawn upon him. Knowing now that her own revelation had made some impact, Margaret turned towards the other man who hadn’t said a word since his attempt to speak had been so swiftly curtailed. “Are you all right?” she asked.
He inclined his head but still kept his silence, even as John Thornton fixed his eyes upon him. “Get out of here!”
Margaret watched as the man seemed to hesitate, as if trying to decide whether to resurrect the argument he’d just now been engaged in, before grudgingly skulking away.
“This isn’t finished, Thornton,” he muttered as he pushed through the door beside which Margaret stood, leaving her alone with the person she now knew to be the landlord of the house her family were renting. John Thornton’s eyes pierced hers as she turned towards him, making her heart jolt despite her determination to hate him. She had come on an errand for her father. She would get it over with and get out of the room as soon as she could.
“I came to speak to you about our washing machine,” she said, thinking how ludicrous it sounded after the previous goings-on. “My father wondered whether you could get someone to come and have a look at it.”
His dark brows buckled in confusion. “What washing machine?”
“The one in the kitchen at home – the house you’re renting to my father. It’s not spinning apparently.” He still looked blank, his mind clearly unfocussed on what she was saying, no doubt pre-occupied with other things. “Can you get someone to come and repair it?” she asked again when she got no response.
“I’ll get in touch with someone this afternoon,” he said eventually, his long fingers combing through his dark hair.
“I’ll let my parents know,” Margaret replied, her tone glacial as she took a step towards the door.
He permitted her a few steps, his voice arresting her in her tracks. As she looked back over her shoulder he met her defiant gaze. “Can I ask why your father didn’t just phone me and speak to me himself?”
“He’s busy all day at work and won’t have the time.”
“So he sent you instead?”
“Yes,” Margaret said simply. “He thought that a personal visit would be more civilised.”
Then she was gone, the stark irony of her words lingering in the air around him.