Sunday, 25 March 2007

Chapter 59

If Danny hadn’t been adequately able to describe Lillian McFry to Harry, it was little wonder. She’d learned, over the years, to keep close to herself many secrets. Other people – well, they didn’t matter. They could know what they needed to know. And that was all.

Sometimes, she looked at the faded photographs on her sideboard, and wondered if she had really known all these people. Faces from the past, hard to place. Even the small portrait of herself, taken when she was in her twenties, seemed like it might be someone else, a stranger to her.

She remembered clearly the day she had it taken. She’d taken herself off to town, while her father went off to a horserace meeting, no doubt to gamble away what little he had spare from his job as a carpenter. She must have been 22. Yes – she remembered now: on the corner, near the cathedral, there had been a group of miners collecting money to support their strike, and she’d dropped a few coins into their tin. That might have been the start of her interest in politics, an awakening of part of her she never knew she had: the thing that had drawn her to join the Independent Labour Party. They had seemed so pitiful, huddled on the street, in stark contrast to the well-dressed shoppers who mostly seemed to pass them by.

Lillian was working in a hospital in those days; long, tiring shifts they were, too. She came home from her job feeling exhausted, but somehow found the strength to complete the list of additional tasks that came with running a home. Today, though, she felt free, and the sun was shining: she had the whole day to herself, to do with what she would.

She’d seen the sign outside the photographers, inviting people to have their picture taken for just a few shillings. Catching sight of her reflection in the shop window, she’d thought ‘Well, you’re not bad looking, Lillian Blyth’. And then, two words she hardly ever uttered forced their way into her mind: ‘Treat yourself.’ She thought of her father, frittering away money at Ripon racecourse, ‘treating himself’.

So, it was a combination of vanity and anger that sent her up the stairs to the photographer’s. Quite a potent mix, all things considered. Thankfully, the photographer was up to the task of capturing precisely that same blend, which made Lillian Blyth look even more beautiful than she probably thought she ever could.

She looked in the mirror, and straightened her hair. Not long now before her visitors arrived.


Cyril Galloway was, meanwhile, cursing himself. He’d waited until almost 5.30pm the previous day, before checking again with the Telford Auction Rooms to see if Harry McFry had called. He hadn’t. By now, he’d found Harry’s number from directory enquiries, and determined to ring him. But there had been no answer. And he didn’t leave a message. Instead, he thought he’d better leave it until tomorrow. No sense in letting this McFry know how anxious he was to get the medals.

So, he’d found a hotel a few miles from the centre of Birkenhead, checked himself in and spent the rest of the evening wondering if he might not have been better simply returning to Telford and contacting McFry the next day. But he didn’t like the idea that Lillian McFry’s medals – and their accompanying documentation – were so close to him, and his instinct told him to stay as near to them as he could. A fretting Cyril Galloway is not a pretty sight, as more than one observer in the hotel bar noticed that evening.

Now, he’d breakfasted and, just after 9.30am, had tried the number for McFry again. No answer. Every last one of his senses, though, told him the medals were still in Birkenhead. And he was right.

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