Her mother was stooping to take something out of the oven and, as she looked down upon her, Laura noticed for the first time that her looks were changing. The blue eyes were bluer than ever, but the pink and white of her face was weathering. Her figure was hardening, too; slim young grace was turning to thin wiriness; and a few grey threads showed in her hair at the temples. Her mother was growing old, soon she would die, thought Laura with sudden compunction, and then how sorry she would be for giving her so much trouble.
But her mother, still on the right side of forty, did not think of herself as ageing and had no thought of dying for a good many more years to come. As it turned out, barely half of her life was over.
‘Gracious, how you are shooting up!’ she said cheerfully, as she rose and stretched herself. ‘I shall soon have to stand tiptoe to tie your hair-ribbon. Have a potato cake? I found young Biddy had laid an egg this morning, her first and not very big, so I thought I’d make us a cake for tea of those cold potatoes in the pantry. A bit of sugar can always be spared. That’s cheap enough.’
Laura ate the cake with great relish, for it was delicious, straight from the oven, and it was also a mark of her mother’s favour; the little ones were not allowed to eat between meals.
Her father had put up a swing for the younger children in the wash-house. She could hear one of them now, crying, ‘Higher! Higher!’ Except for the baby, asleep in the cradle, her mother and she were alone in the room, which, on that dull day, was aglow with firelight. Her mother’s pastry board and rolling-pin still stood on a white cloth on one end of the table, and the stew for dinner, mostly composed of vegetables, but very savoury-smelling, simmered upon the hob. She had a sudden impulse to tell her mother how much she loved her; but in the early ‘teens such feelings cannot be put into words, and all she could do was to praise the potato cake.
But perhaps her look conveyed something of what she felt, for, that evening, her mother, after speaking of her own father, who had been dead three or four years, added: ‘You are the only one I can talk to about him. Your father and he never got on together and the others were too young when he died to remember him. Lots of things happened before they were born that you’ll always remember, so I shall always have somebody to talk to about the old times.’
From that day a new relationship was established and grew between them. Her mother was not kinder to Laura than she had been, for she had always been kindness itself, but she took her more into her confidence, and Laura was happy again.
But, as so often happens when two human beings have come to understand each other, they were soon to be parted. In the early spring a letter came from Candleford saying that Dorcas Lane wanted a learner for her Post Office work and thought Laura would do, if her parents were willing. Although she was not one for much gadding about, she said, it was irksome to be always tied to the house during Post Office hours. ‘Not that I expect her to stay with me for ever,’ she added. ‘She’ll want to do better for herself later on, and, when that time comes, I’ll speak to Head Office and we shall see what we shall see.’
So, one morning in May, Polly and the spring-cart drew up at the gate and Laura’s little trunk, all new and shiny black with her initials in brass-headed nails, was hoisted into the back seat, and Laura in a new frock — grey cashmere with a white lace collar and the new leg-of-mutton sleeves — climbed up beside her father, who was taking a day off to drive Polly.
‘Good-bye, Laura. Good-bye. Good-bye. Don’t forget to write to me.’
‘And to me, and address it to my very own self,’ cried the little sisters.
‘You be a good gal an’ do what you’re told an’ you’ll get on like a house afire,’ called a kindly neighbour from her doorway.
‘Wrap every penny stamp up in a smile,’ advised the innkeeper, closing his double gates after Polly’s exit.
As Polly trotted on, Laura turned to look across fields green with spring wheat to the huddle of grey cottages where she knew her mother was thinking about her, and tears came into her eyes.
Her father looked at her in surprise, then said kindly but grudgingly: ‘Well, ’tis your home, such as it is, I suppose.’
Yes, with all its limitations, the hamlet was home to her. There she had spent her most impressionable years and, although she was never to live there again for more than a few weeks at a time, she would bear their imprint through life.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00