Saturday, 7 April 2007

Chapter 69

The journey back to Birkenhead went smoothly enough for Harry and Danny, and gave them the opportunity to test out with each other some widely divergent theories they had as to the parentage of Colleen Blyth. They left Vale View around 2pm, feeling Lillian was maybe more than a little exhausted with all her talking.

They’d learned a lot in those three hours. Harry’s head, in particular, was buzzing after the encounter. So much so, that he made a snap decision he (only later) came to regret.

“I don’t know about you, Danny,” he said, as the car slipped easily into the motorway traffic, “but I’ve had just about enough of these McFry’s over the last three days. I think maybe we need the afternoon off.” Harry sounded tired. It was Friday afternoon, and he thought Laurel McFry had perhaps had her money’s worth from them already. As well as that, they both needed to prepare for their trip to Madrid the following day.

Danny agreed: he’d more than once lost track of Lillian’s account of her movements in Spain, France and then back in England. The week he’d planned for himself when it started had taken an unexpected – if not unwelcome – turn. Last Sunday night, he’d been plotting the research for his latest book, had imagined a full week spent in the library; but the invitation to work alongside Harry had been too much of a good thing to turn down. The idea of an afternoon not spent thinking about Laurel McFry’s ‘missing’ family seemed an attractive one.

Yet neither of them could help themselves as the car sped northwards.

“So who do you think Colleen Blyth’s father was, Harry?” Danny asked.

“I wish we could be sure, Danny,” Harry said, noticing, though, that his apprentice had got to the nub of the case . “What about you?”

Danny was swift in his response (just a little too swift for Harry’s liking but, hey, the boy still had a lot to learn): “I think it’s obvious. It’s got to be Stuart McFry.” Danny turned to Harry. “Who else could it be?”

Harry had his own idea, but wanted to test out Danny’s hypothesis.

“You might be right,” he said, “but I take it you are ruling out Thomas McFry?”

Lillian had told them more than they had imagined she would. They’d learned all about her time in Spain, in particular how she had worked in the field hospital in Guernica, and had met up there (improbably) with Stuart McFry, the older brother of Thomas. Lillian had traveled to Spain with both brothers, although Thomas was her ‘partner’ she said, using the ‘modern’ sense of the word. She told them how the two of them had managed to escape, via Bilbao, to France, where they had spent some months in the refuge of a fisherman’s home. And she told them about Colleen.

But Harry wasn’t supposed to know about Colleen. He had itched to ask her who Colleen’s father was, but he knew he couldn’t. If Lillian got even the slightest sense that he thought this was important, she’d know at once that the real purpose of his visit wasn’t anything at all to do with the medals. Instead, he was condemned to sit back and listen to Lillian’s account, hoping she might just give away a clue – one, solitary clue – as to who Colleen’s father had been.

The clue never came, even though he learned that she had left Colleen with Philippe Bergerac, the fisherman in the south of France. Her ‘plan’ she had explained (“such as it was,” she had said, only a little bitterly) was to return to England, to Yorkshire, and to make a home for her daughter. She would need to get a job, find a house. The idea that she could just arrive in England with an infant girl had seemed to her, at the time, well … not even to be contemplated.

Harry had found himself softening towards Lillian when he had heard this. Looking at her now, at her thin, angular frame, he had wondered why he had feared her so much before he met her. But he also knew she was sharp. There were times, before what still seemed to him, as he recalled it, to be a ‘confession’, when he hadn’t known if he was playing against a poker master or a seasoned angler.

With Colleen ‘safe’ in south west France, and with every intention of returning for her once she had settled again in England, Lillian Blyth had made her way through France, accompanied by Stuart McFry, back ‘home’. Harry couldn’t help think that, however strong a woman Lillian had been at the time, history had proven itself stronger. No one who heard her story – and Harry thought he’d been around the block enough times not to get caught up in the emotion of these things – could be immune from thinking hers was a tragic tale.

Of course, she had told him, Stuart McFry had been in love with her. Besotted by her, she had said, without a trace of embarrassment. Should she be ashamed if men found her attractive? “I don’t imagine for one minute that, when you look at me now, you see a beautiful woman,” Lillian had said. “But I was young once. And the men … seemed to like me.” Harry had caught the regret in her voice. He already knew that Jonathan Harcourt was the love of her life: he knew, the moment she had asked him “Have you ever loved someone?” what she meant.

She told him how she had tried to find Jonathan on her return to England. The letters she’d written, the phone calls she had made. The friends she had asked, until she thought they were bored by her enquiries. The slow and painful realization she had come to, that Jonathan Harcourt had died in Spain.

Harry was waiting for Danny’s answer. When it came, it showed he’d kept up with Lillian’s story more than Harry had imagined.

“I don’t think it was Thomas McFry, Harry,” he said. “She hated Thomas McFry.”

Harry reflected (not for the first time) that Danny Longhurst was smarter than he’d thought he was, for a teenager, and for someone who hadn’t lived very much, just yet.

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