The Chilbury Ladies' Choir Page 2

I had to hide my smile behind my hand, waiting for Mrs. B.’s wrath. But at that moment, the Vicar himself flew past us, trotting at speed after the Brigadier, who was striding up to the Manor.

Mrs. B. took one look, seized her umbrella with grim determination, and began stomping after him, calling, “I’ll have a word with you, Vicar,” her usual forthright battle cry.

The Vicar turned and, seeing her gaining pace, sprinted for all he was worth.




Tuesday, 26th March, 1940

Brace yourself, Clara, for we are about to be rich! I’ve been offered the most unscrupulous deal you’ll ever believe! I knew this ruddy war would turn up some gems—whoever would have thought that midwifery could be so lucrative! But I couldn’t have imagined such a grubby nugget of a deal coming from snooty Brigadier Winthrop, the upper-class tyrant who thinks he owns this prissy little village. I know you’ll say it’s immoral, even by my standards, but I need to get away from being a cooped-up, put-down midwife. I need to get back to the old house where I can live my own life and be free.

Don’t you see, Clara? Soon I can pay back the money I owe, like I promised, and you’ll finally realize how clever I am, how I can make up for mistakes of the past. We can put everything behind us, and never mention what happened with Bill (although I always say I saved you from him). Then I’ll buy back our childhood house in Birnham Wood, all fields and cliffs beside the sea, and we can live safe and happy just like before Mum died. I’ll be finished with births and babies and nasty rashes in people’s nether regions, people bossing me about and laughing behind my back. I’ll be back to being my own person, no one watching over me.

But let me tell you about the deal from the beginning, as I know how you are about details. It was the funeral of Edmund Winthrop, the Brigadier’s despicable son who was blown up in a submarine last week. Only twenty he was—one minute a repulsive reptile, the next a feast for the fishes.

The morning of the funeral was cold and wet as a slap round the face with a fresh-caught cod. We might have been in the North Sea ourselves for the ferocious winds and grisly clouds, a monstrous hawk circling above us looking for a victim. “Rather fitting,” I heard someone murmur as we plunged headlong with our umbrellas through the bedraggled graveyard and into the dim, musty church.

Packed to the rafters, the place was buzzing with gossipy onlookers. At the front, the Winthrops and their aristocrat friends were sitting all plumed and groomed like a row of black swans. A splatter of khaki and gray-blue uniforms appeared as per usual, uniformed men thinking they’re special when they’re just plain stupid. More like uninformed, I always say.

The rest of us locals (mostly wool-coated women these days) had to crowd around behind them, listening to the thin excuse of a choir, a few off-key voices hazarding “Holy, holy, holy.” The posh women of the village are upset at the choir’s closing, but after a performance like that I’d rather hear a cats’ chorus.

Throughout the dreary service, the dead soldier’s mother sniveled into her hands, quaking under her black suit. She’s pregnant again, late in life—although she’s still in her late thirties. They say her nasty father forced her to marry the Brigadier when she was barely sixteen, and she’s been terrorized by him ever since.

She was the only tearful one, though. The rest of us weren’t so blind to Edmund’s brutish, arrogant ways—just like his father. I’m sure there were even a few present who felt a justified retribution at his early demise.

Hardly attempting to look sad, the two sisters, now eighteen and thirteen, sat dutifully beside their grieving mother. The older one, Venetia, with her golden hair and coquettish ways, was more interested in batting her eyelashes at that handsome new artist than in the funeral. Young Kitty, gangly as a growing fawn, glanced around like she’d seen a ghost, her pointed face like a pixie’s in the purple-blue glow of the stained-glass window towering over the altar. Beside her, that foreign evacuee girl looked petrified, like she’d seen death before and a lot more besides.

The Brigadier glared on like a domineering vulture, the burnished medals and his upper-class prestige ranking him above everyone else in the church. He was rhythmically thwacking his silver-tipped horsewhip against his boot. His violent temper is legendary, and no one was going to cross him today. You see, not only had he lost his only son, he’d also lost the family fortune. The Chilbury Manor estate must go to a male heir, and Edmund’s death has plunged the family into turmoil. The Brigadier would be branded a fool if the family fortune was lost under his watch. But I know his type. He won’t take this lying down.

After the grueling service, we grabbed our gas mask boxes and traipsed gloomily through horizontal daggers of icy rain up to Chilbury Manor, a Georgian monstrosity that some past Winthrop brutally erected.

I puffed up the steps to the big door, hoping for a glass of something and a big comfy sofa, but the place was already crammed with damp-smelling mourners and wet umbrellas. It was noisy as King’s Cross, what with the marbled galleried hallway echoing with ladies’ heels and noisy chatter. The Winthrops are an old, wealthy family, and the locals are scavenging toads, all hanging around in case they can get their grubby hands on some of the spoils.

And me? I already have my hand in their pocket, and that makes it my business to keep track of events around here. You see, the Brigadier has already been paying me to keep my mouth shut about his affairs, including that unwanted pregnancy last year, and his nasty son spreading disease around this village faster than you can say “the clap.” This war means opportunity for me. Any midwife worth her salt must realize the potential such a situation can bring, especially with the likes of these smutty gentry who think they’re beyond reproach. They’re easy prey for extortion—twenty here, forty there. It all adds up.

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