ANDREW LEE-HART - TRAVELLING
Andrew was born in Yorkshire, England many years ago but now lives on Merseyside where he writes stories and works as a support worker, supporting adults with learning difficulties. His stories have appeared on various websites and in print magazines.
Lord I am only young, even now barely seventeen although I feel much older and wiser. Who will marry me now? I did nothing wrong but I cannot escape the rumours and gossip, however far I travel; even in London I am sure that they are talking about it, maybe even abroad.
I was fifteen and a good and innocent girl when I became a maid for the new minister Rev. Baker. My parents had been going to the Presbyterian Church in High Green for ever so long; my father since he married my mother, my mother since she was a girl. They were always there in the church, attending the various meetings and active as much as they could be. But now my mother goes to a Congregationalist church in another part of Nottingham, and doesn’t like to tell people her name, whilst my father stays at home and hides his shame.
After it happened my aunt found me a position as a maid over in Derby, but the family I work for now know all about what happened. It is short distance between Nottingham and Derby and scandal travel fast. I was naïve I suppose, even for my age; I read my Bible every day and went to Sunday School, but I did not know what goes on between men and women and had not even been kissed by a boy. I was respectable and so were my parents; we may not have been rich but we were decent and we feared God.
The Rev. Baker had not been there long. Our previous minister, the Rev. Dunlop had got a post in London and for about three months we had various men from the Nottingham District tending to our needs, and then we were told that the Rev. David Baker would be our new minister; he had taken a trial and preached a sermon a couple of weeks earlier, and now here he was. He looked in his mid-thirties; a fine looking man but perhaps a bit clever for the congregation. The Rev. Dunlop had preached with passion and gazed deeply and darkly into the eyes of everyone present; even a nervous young girl like me. But the Rev. Baker lacked that fire, and his eyes were kind and with humour and it was as if he were preaching from a book.
His wife Ruth was there at his first Sunday; a dark lady, finely dressed, and whose eyes never left her husband. Next to her was Miss Morton; with her red hair and green eyes who was Ruth’s companion; a quiet, rather willowy woman who gazed about her as Baker preached about King David. The Bakers had no children which might have made a difference.
Things had changed the old queen had died a year earlier and now we were in the Twentieth Century and a corrupter, wicked time was upon us. I wish I had not been dragged into it, but what could I do; a young girl with no say in anything? Yes, I had bad thoughts; was jealous of my brothers and sisters, coveted things that were not mine. But did I deserve this?
Mrs Baker had a word with my mother; the household needed a maid. The previous lady who had looked after the Rev. Dunlop had followed him up to London. I was flattered to be offered the job and I was not scared of hard work; on the contrary I saw it as important; as a way of worshipping God. Perhaps I was nothing special in the scheme of things, but at least I could work zealously and do my functions in life well. My parents were also pleased; they were both in awe of the Bakers who had an air of superiority, more so than previous ministers, and they were anxious that I held myself well and did not embarrass them.
The Manse was a large house; dark and with heavy furniture, which smelt of damp and food. It had been left to the church by one of the first Presbyterians in the area, a business man my mother vaguely remembered but who was dead well before I was born. I had been in there before for the yearly garden party and other activities the church held. But now I was going there to work and to spend most of my day.
And so I came into the house at six in the morning and stayed until ten at night cleaning and polishing, serving food, running messages and answering the door. The minister seemed to spend much of the time in his study; a dark room at the back of the house and down a long corridor which meant it was rather separate. I rarely went in there apart from on a Thursday afternoon when Baker visited the poor and sick and I was then supposed to give it a clean, but not to move any of the books or the papers on his desk.
And there were so many books; not just Bibles but books about the gospels, the Pentateuch, the Psalms, books about the Jews and about Moslems who I knew a little about, and the Cathars and the Rosicrucians who I didn’t, and there was poetry and all sorts of books I have never come across since and don’t particularly want to. There was nothing there that would appeal to a young girl although I always did well at school and could read far better than my parents. But when the Rev. Baker lost his job, they also accused him of blasphemy as well as immorality, and I think it was on account of those books.
He seemed a kindly sort of man; he often spoke to me and asked after my parents and my brothers and sisters, and he did not scare me, like the Revered Dunlop had done. I also liked his wife’s companion; Miss Morton, or Naomi as Mrs Baker called her. She was a quiet woman but she was friendly and somebody who I instinctively to trusted; she never hurt me and that is something. When we talked, she was always present in the conversation unlike Mrs Baker who rarely listened to anything I said.
I could not like Mrs Baker; always sneaking up on me, catching me out. Telling me off, and there was that patronising voice.
“Come on Deborah, I think you know better than that……why not try that again……oh dear I thought you would have been taught better……where is your common sense girl?”
And the way she dressed; too fancy for Highgreen, and I could not understand her Yorkshire accent; she tried to sound posh, but when she was flustered; which was a lot of the time, her voice became broad and I had to say “excuse me ma’am could you repeat yourself”, but then she would get cross, so it was easier to guess what she had said.
Once he called me into his study. He was sitting on a sofa with a book in his hands; it was poems by someone called Donne, and he asked me to sit down and he read to me. He always seemed a bit scruffy; I don’t know why because he wore lovely clothes, chosen by his wife I think, but they never sat well on him. He seemed to read well although I did not understand very well what the poems were about; lots of angels and there was one about the sun and love. Great I am sure, but not really for me. After that he often read poetry to me, even some of his own, and I loved the sound of his voice even I could not always understand what he was saying.
I wondered if he had nobody else to read poetry to; perhaps his wife did not like it although I imagined that Miss Morton was poetic, but perhaps she preferred to read to herself and maybe she liked different poets. And then Naomi and the Reverend Baker did not seem that close but avoided each other.
I did not understand Miss Morton; she seemed a clever lady so why just sit about the house all day as companion to a woman who really did not need one? And why was her bed sometimes not slept in? The blanket had been mussed up but it was easy to tell that she had not lain there all night. And she loved going out; even when it rained, and it was a very wet autumn that year. She would go out and come back drenched and would asked me to dry her and help her put some dry clothes on. Previously the only grown-woman’s body I had seen was my mother’s by candlelight, but Miss Morton’s was beautiful; far shapelier than you would expect when seeing her dressed or even in dishabille.
Once I was helping her dry herself in her room; she was pale and naked, and we chatted about the town and the people in it, as I rubbed her back with a towel. And then Rev. Baker walked straight into her room without knocking and looked straight at her.
“Naomi” he said, the first time I am heard him call her by her first name. And then he saw me and turned red, and muttered something before walking out. She laughed and quickly put on a wrap whilst I found her some dry clothes.
“That man is forgetful, probably came into the wrong room” she said, but she sounded false, which was unlike her. And I had seen the look in the Rev. Baker’s eyes, and it was not shock at seeing her naked, it was shock that I was there.
Then Autumn was almost over and the house was cold. Rain sometimes came through the roof, and there was a damp smell which never quite went away no matter how hard I scrubbed and cleaned. Often the only fires that were lit were in Baker’s study, and in the sitting room. Even when all the fires were burning the corridors were cold and dark. And I hated going home at night into the darkness, but there was nobody to walk back with me.
One Friday morning there was a loud knock at the door; I knew that Mrs Baker was in the kitchen cooking; she often spent hours in the kitchen, face flushed but at peace. It was Mr Smythe; the senior elder of the church, at the door. He always scared me with his strong Scottish accent, and that fierce look that never left him. I could not understand what he said but assumed he must want to see the Rev. Baker.
I hurried back into the house and knocked on the study door, but perhaps too quietly and the rain was loud and heavy, so the Rev. Baker can’t have heard me as I walked into his study and found him on his settee, with his head between the legs of Miss Morton who was naked and head lain back in ecstasy.
I was in shock, but automatically turned to walk out of there and make some excuse to Mr Smythe, but he had followed me into the house and was just behind me starring at his minister who was still unaware of the intrusion, and behind him stood Mrs Baker who must have known what was going on. She kicked me hard as I stumbled past her and out of that house, my leg throbbing.
I never saw any of them again; Rev Baker, his wife or Miss Morton. And yet I do find I miss those days; I loved the reverend Baker reading poetry to me, even if I did not understand it all, and I liked the kindness of Miss Morton. But Mrs Baker, I do not miss; a savage creature who was lucky to be married to a clever a man; no wonder he did what he did. She could have stopped what happened if she had wanted to. I know it is a sin, but I hate her, and nothing will change that.
I was questioned by one of the sisters from the church, who was embarrassed and cross. What had I seen? Had I been involved? And then I fled to Derby. But shortly after I left Nottingham the story made the newspapers and I was even mentioned by name. Suddenly I was shamed; everyone thought I had done things. Everyone knows about it now, and I cannot bear it. My aunt is going to arrange for me to go to Canada; perhaps it will be a fresh start and I can marry a farmer, and live a happy, hard-working life, amongst good people who don’t know anything about me and where such goings-on are unknown.
I remember the first time I saw him; it was the welcoming service at Emmanuel Presbyterian Church in Leeds. I was eighteen and had been going to the church since I was born, and was now a teacher at the Sunday school. He stood there looking down upon us, the window behind him giving him a sort of halo. He looked so young and innocent that I wanted to protect him, although he was in fact eight years older than me. And he had this sense of boundless possibility about him, which suited me as I wanted to get out of the city, and out of Yorkshire, away from my parents and live a life with a great man by my side.
I am an attractive and beautiful woman and was even more so then. In that church with all these provincial bankers’ daughters and virgin teachers, it was easy to turn his head and within a year of my first seeing him I was installed in the Manse with his ring on my finger and the world my oyster.
He never quite fulfilled my expectations, even though once I became his wife I spurred him on, providing everything he needed for his great career. He stayed in Leeds far longer than I wanted him to, and then three years in the North-East, before Highgreen, another dead end part of a provincial city, although we were slightly nearer London I suppose. But then there was the scandal after that stupid girl Deborah caught him in flagrante with Naomi. But it wasn’t her fault, if only Baker and Naomi had been more discreet, saved all that stuff for the bedroom at night when nobody could catch them and Deborah was at home in her bed safe with her innocence.
Sex had been a problem from the start; it just hurt so much. I let him have his way a couple of times but it was impossible. I went to a doctor who told me it was just something that I would have to endure. But I couldn’t, not for anything, and to be fair to Baker, he did not want to hurt me. He was sympathetic, but I know he needed that, it is what all men need and I was ashamed that I could not provide it.
So when I heard from my friend Naomi a couple of years later it was ideal; she was reasonably attractive, and regarded herself as an intellectual which would suit my husband. We had known each other since children and then she had got married and moved to Sheffield, but her husband had died leaving her with nothing, and she did not want to go back home. I suggested she move in with me as a companion, I did not mention the other stuff; I would let nature take its course.
She became company for me as we moved to Newcastle and then Nottingham, and she helped deal with the physical side of the marriage which I could not do. I just left them to it, I did not need to know, and I had plenty of other things to be getting on with. Occasionally I was jealous; when I saw them exchanging a look which made me feel excluded or when I heard them in his bedroom at night. But if I could not provide what every woman should provide then could I really complain? It is only physical after all; a relieving of the humours.
And then after he was thrown out of the church, it was me who suggested that he become a teacher. We had money between us; my parents were dead by this time and I had no surviving siblings. Naomi gladly gave what little she had and Baker had some savings. One of Baker’s friends knew of a school in a town called Ware a little outside London where the teacher was retiring. We went up and soon took it over.
It was a select school with fourteen borders aged between eight and fourteen; and we were able to charge a good amount as it was a wealthy town, with prosperity etched all over its’ grand buildings and large houses. Baker taught the oldest amongst them, myself the youngest, and then there was Mr Daniel Henderson (Cantab) who taught the rest.
Daniel was tall and handsome, with his beautiful Cornish vowels; he strode above the pupils, who all adored him, but then how could anyone not? He lived in town and came into school every day. I would watch him walk up the drive, looking so unconcerned; his mind on higher things. And when he looked at me, my heart beat so fast and I felt myself go red. I knew that he was the man I was destined for, having that ambition and brilliance that my husband unfortunately lacked.
Naomi lived at the top of the school away from the boarders, and on occasion I would hear Baker go up there at night.
“You need to be discrete” I told him, “the children are not stupid. We cannot afford another scandal.”
He said not a word, just looked at me as if I was a particularly impertinent child and stalked off. He was remote and austere now. But he seemed to blame me for the scandal and humiliation, and he and Naomi were closer now as if the intimacy of the bed had pervaded to the rest of their relationship.
I had hoped Baker would prove to be an inspired teacher; he loved books and I remembered him speaking to the congregation so eloquently and intelligently. But he seemed to have lost interest now.
“They are just not interested” he told us; “I try to talk to them of beauty, of the mysteries of love and God, about politics and injustice, but all they want is enough to pass the time until they work for their fathers, or get a job in the city.”
Naomi was sat next to him as we drank coffee in the room we had commandeered for us meals.
“I am sure you are inspiring some of them” Naomi told him, “you are a great teacher”.
I had never seen her so demonstrative; cool, reserved Naomi who seemed to have undertaken her sexual duties as a favour to me, could she be falling in love with my husband?
And then I saw Daniel outside in the garden gathering plants and I forgot about Baker and Naomi. I decided to get some air so left the house and soon met Daniel. He took my arm as we strode about.
“You seem sad” he told me.
I could feel his hand on my arm, and was never so conscious of another man’s presence.
“I worry about the children of course; their welfare is such a responsibility.”
“Of course” and then we talked of various pupils.
This became our habit; walking through the garden in the early evening, talking of the children and then as we became more intimate, of wider matters. I had never felt happier, and at times wondered what it would be like to be married to Daniel. Perhaps sex with him would be loving and joyful, or perhaps we would not need that. We could sit and read in the long evenings with nobody to disturb us, and forget the past. I loved him and knew it was only a matter of time before he would take me away with him to begin our life anew.
And so we were on our own. David and me. When my former friend ran off with that soppy teacher we tried to carry on with the school. After all David was the best thing about it; but the scandal was too great. Ware is a small and respectable town and soon we were a school without pupils, and then somebody found out about that nonsense at High Green and we had no choice but to go.
When I moved in with them it was Ruth who was my friend and David her husband. The marriage was not happy and it was because she struggled with physical intimacy. Nothing was ever said; but about a week after I had moved in he came to my room and we made love. For him it was a physical release; men have their needs but over time I began to feel something for him, and when my heart beat when he came to me it was not for the physical sensation of him inside me, but just being with him; his smell, his humour and his teaching.
He was a born teacher; always telling me things about religion, about books, nature, politics, the stars. He loved learning new things and then spreading that knowledge. And I loved to listen. I am not a stupid person and have read well therefore I can listen and hold my own in a conversation, and I can learn. Often he would read to me before and afterwards and we would talk. Sometimes the sex was just perfunctory as if the main reason was for us to chat and to learn, and perhaps it was. But other times he was filled with lust for me and for my body, and I did not mind that at all, not one bit.
So I went with him when he left Ware. We sold the school to a family and travelled. Ostensibly he wanted to write a book like his hero Daniel Defoe. A description of England in the new century.
“Things will change” he told me “I feel it. There is a sense of unhappiness and discontent about the country.”
“What do you mean?”
He thought for a moment; “poverty, dislocation, the worship of power. It is in the air we breathe, in the looks that people give us.”
He began to rent rooms in the cities we visited and gave talks. We started nearby in St. Albans where for a fortnight he gave lectures on a range of subjects; the poetry of William Blake, Islam, the music of Henry Purcell, the abolition of the monarchy, the Jewish prophet Obadiah, the evils of colonialism and Chartism. He charged a fee for entry and got enough people to make a small living. The lectures seemed almost improvised, perhaps he had been practising when he lay with me in his bed and we talked.
We moved up the country; Reading, Oxford, Leicester, Sheffield, Manchester, Carlisle and Durham. The more he spoke the better he became. But then being a minister and a teacher he was used to speaking in public, and he started to get a reputation particularly in the north where they appreciated his radical ideas. He was even asked to contribute to various radical newspapers. Perhaps this was when he started to fulfil his destiny.
I helped him with his writing; he knew what he wanted to say but was not sure how to compose it. We would sit in the afternoon him musing aloud whilst I made notes and later wrote it all down. How much of the finished book was actually his is a matter for conjecture, but it was under his name that it was published by Hammond and Taylor, a well-known publisher, who encouraged him to write more. It sold well and he became a least a minor public figure for a time.
And then Ruth wrote to me; a long letter full of regret and sadness. Her elopement had not worked out “the usual problem” and she was living with her parents, looking after them. She had heard about David’s talks and asked if she could see him. I destroyed the letter as I did the others that she subsequently wrote to both David and me. Burnt them as I wished I could burn her.
“We need to travel” he told me; “I want to see Europe; Paris, Germany and Italy. And then Russia. That will be what my new book is about.”
So we took trains and we travelled. He had assumed that I would go with him and he was right. We stayed in Paris for a month he taught, spoke at various colleges and we wrote together, and then we travelled to Rome. We had a suite of rooms in a hotel near the centre. We hired a young maid called Leontyne who he taught English to in between writing and teaching.
We are a family I thought; he is my husband and we will grow old together. But of course he wasn’t, and I knew that if he left me I would be alone and virtually penniless. But could he manage without me? Much of what he had become was due to me, but I am not sure he saw that, rather saw me as his secretary who he also happened to share a bed with sometimes.
When weren’t together I visited art galleries and churches and examined the great buildings and ruins. I loved Rome and wanted to stay there; it was my home which I had now discovered after living so long in damp England. Until one day, walking into his rooms when he was supposed to be away meeting a professor, I found him on the bed, Leontyne naked and astride him; their shadows moving against the white walls. I suppose I was like that poor maid Deborah when she found him with me in his study, and I was equally shocked.
I had been so happy; in a beautiful city, helping the man I loved write a masterpiece. I felt that I was doing something that would make a difference. I was part of the world, not some poor girl from Leeds who knew nothing.
“It is only my needs. Love is the essential.”
“No, it is more important than that.” I told him, “you betrayed me. Why did you need somebody else? You could have me anytime you wanted to.”
I could smell the perfume of her body as I stood in front of him as he lay on the bed. He looked pathetic and feeble and I felt heartbroken.
We stayed in Rome for a few more weeks as I helped him finish off his writing, but other than that we had little to do with each other; I did not know what would happen but there was no way I was going back to England.
“I am going to Russia” he told me, one September morning. “Come with me; I will leave Leontyne behind.”
“I doubt she would go with you anyway; she has never been outside Rome.”
“She would if I asked her to. But I want you.”
“No. I am happy here in Rome and I can make my way. Up to you what you do, but I am staying here.”
Leontyne did go with him; I watched them leave from my window the following morning; both unhurried as if they knew what they were doing. They put the cases into the carriage to take them to the railway station and then far away to the north and east; away from the hot sun and beauty of Italy. Neither of them looked up at the hotel, they were concentrating on getting their stuff packed and away. They were leaving me behind.
I stayed in Rome; taught in a school and then married a widower who lived opposite the pensione that I rented a room in. I am happy now; I love Italy and I love Paulo, a kind man who is patient with me and who helps me learn. I am no longer an ignorant Leeds girl, but a sophisticated Roman and I have two children who have stayed in Rome and are true Romans too, and only know about cold, dark England from pictures in books, and from stories I tell them about my youth.
I often wondered about the Rev. Baker, particularly during the war and the revolution that followed in Russia. Had he survived? Had he even got to Russia? Did he finish his book? Our lives are such frail journeys it is a wonder that we get anywhere at all.
This was all a long time ago. Europe is falling apart and we have that clown Mussolini posturing and preening himself; but I think and hope he will be with us for only a short while and then the grown-ups will take over. And I am getting old, my temptation is to keep my head down and weather what comes.
Whilst Paulo talks to his old friends I sit in cafes, drink coffee and smoke cigarettes, and think about the past and how I got to where I am now. And yes I would like to meet Baker once more, to discover what else he has learned and seen; to sit him down and tell him that now he can rest from his travelling. But somebody like that can never be at peace; he will always want more, and even in paradise he will still be searching for something and somewhere just out of reach.