Saturday, 24 March 2007

Chapter 57

Harry had already been in the office for over an hour when Danny arrived at Meldew Buildings at 9.30am, the time they’d agreed to meet to start their journey down to Telford to visit Lillian McFry.

Harry collected his file of papers together, pulled on his overcoat and grabbed his hat, pausing only to double-check that he’d locked his office before he made his way down the stairs into the foyer.

He found Danny chatting to Henry, who had paused for a moment from his never-ending task of brushing away the street detritus that always seemed to accumulate in the entrance.

“What was he saying to you?” Harry said, as they walked up the street to find Danny’s car.

“Not much. Just you seemed a bit happier today, that’s all. I don’t think he’s forgiven me for my unannounced visit earlier in the week,” Danny replied. But he noticed Harry did seem a little more ‘chipper’ than he’d seen him over the past couple of days.

“Don’t you worry about Henry, Danny. He’s just doing his job. You’ll find he’s OK when you get to know him.” Harry handed his file to Danny.

“Here – hold this a minute,” he said, pausing to drag a cigarette out and light it, cuffing it against the wind and drizzle. Harry read every nuance of Danny’s glance.

“What’s the matter, Danny? You going to deny a man a smoke before he has to sit for an hour and a half in a car without one?”

But Harry was smiling, as he spoke, and Danny appreciated the implicit sacrifice he was about to make.

“Thanks Harry,” he said, smiling back.

“Now. Tell me about Lillian McFry,” Harry said. “What kind of person am I going to be meeting?”

It seemed a strange sort of question to Danny. They’d started l walking to where Danny had parked his car. What kind of person was Lillian McFry, he wondered?

“Well … I think you’ll like her, Harry. I never knew anything about that Spain stuff when I saw her. But she’s quite a remarkable person.” Danny tried to think back to his first meeting with Lillian McFry. Back then, she’d just been a client, an old woman who had asked him to find her granddaughter. Now, he was beginning to realize, Lillian McFry had lived a life extraordinary.

“She doesn’t look like she’s 102,” he said. Harry looked at him, quizzically.

“In what way?” he asked.

“Well … put it this way. If she was my grandmother, I could make a fortune setting her up in a booth and asking people to guess her age. I don’t think anyone would say she was over 90, and I’m pretty sure I’d make a lot of money from the one’s who said she was in her eighties.”

Harry seemed to enjoy the idea of the young Danny Longhurst stood in a market place, enticing passers-by to guess the age of his centenarian grandmother, even if he was simultaneously doing the maths and working out that unless Danny’s mother had been in her forties, and unless his grandmother had been in her forties… Sometimes, Harry thought, it was a trial being a family historian. It just seemed to destroy illusions. He pulled himself back from the precipice of genealogical angst just in time, however, and said to Danny:

“But what is she like … as a person?”

“She’s on the ball, Harry. You know, I never knew anything about all that Spanish Civil War stuff when she gave me those medals. I really thought they must have belonged to her husband. You just don’t imagine…”

Harry paused from walking for a moment, and Danny pulled up by his side. They were close to the car now, in Hamilton Square, the rain making the Victorian monument at its centre seem to shimmer. Danny fished his keys out from his pocket.

“Let me tell you something, son,” Harry said, his tone becoming grave. “History is really made by women. Sure, they might try to tell you something else, in the books. But we neglect the role women play in history at our peril – just you remember that, Danny. And the same holds true for family history.”

The profundity of what Harry was saying hit Danny hard. He’d spent a year compiling his book on how rebellious women had made their mark on the Wirral. But he’d never for a minute thought about how family history was, well … just plain impossible … without women.

Harry was right. So much time was spent following the male line in genealogy, that it became easy to neglect the mothers.

Harry saw the dawning of a realization in Danny’s eyes.

“Hey, kid! You just got the third rule!” he said.

With that, he stubbed out his cigarette, they climbed into Danny’s car, and made their way through the (quite intricate) one way system that would take them out of Birkenhead, out of the Wirral and down the motorway into Shropshire, where Harry McFry would finally meet a woman who (if truth be known) he anticipated he would find quite daunting.

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