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We climbed the Matterhorn

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Beckfoot lawn, August 1961

Blinking in the afternoon sunlight, Molly considered the possibility that she was getting old. It was not evidenced so much in the aches and pains, and the other physical irritations (though she had selected a steamer chair, as being rather less low-slung than the deck-chairs) as in the way that she had utterly ceased to worry about what her grandchildren were getting up to. Only five years ago she would have been patrolling the edge of the lawn, making sure that no child went between her and the lake. Now they were old enough to look after themselves, and she was old enough to let them. They would be home in time – if not for tea, then for supper. Not for her the anxious watch-checking, the midnight search parties. She was content to leave that to her daughters and the adult Walkers and Callums.

'Isn't it lovely,' she said to Mary Walker, who sat beside her knitting a baby's matinée coat in a practical maroon, 'to leave the arrangements entirely to the younger generation? I ordered the cake, but Peggy and Susan have done the rest. And it's so nice not to have to worry about one's children any more.'

'I don't think I ever stopped,' Mary said thoughtfully, 'but it is nice to see them beginning to appreciate what we went through. Night sailing! Shipwrecks! I still shudder to think of it.'

'There comes a point where worrying about them doesn't do any good any longer,' Molly said, '(and to be honest I think that happened when Nancy was about six) though of course that never stops one. However, having seen the lot of them more or less safely through the war, goodness only knows how, one's happy just to let them do what they like. My two always did, anyhow.'

'And none the worse for it. But -' Mary lowered her voice conspiratorially - 'I must admit I'm laughing at your Nancy muttering about the brood being late for tea.'

Molly laughed with her. She did not much mind if tea were delayed, even if it was her birthday party. It was not actually her birthday – that had in fact been some months ago – but the celebration had been put off in order to coincide with as many people's leave and holidays as possible, and to organise a grand reunion.

The children were camping en masse up in Swallowdale, and there had been talk of tramping up there with a picnic, until Bridget, hot and tired, eight months into her second pregnancy, had vetoed the idea. Secretly, Molly was rather glad. It is considerably easier to arrange a banquet worthy of the name when one does not have to allow for disasters associated with carrying the whole caboodle up a steepish slope and through a wood.

Even the most willing of pack-ponies would have had difficulties with the lavishly iced cake. It had arrived in a box marked 'Fragile – handle with care'. Molly thanked her stars that there was no call for her daughters to sling it over an oar, and drag her up with it. She had half-feared they might, given half a chance. Much better to sit in state like Queen Victoria with her vast family about her. At least, when the remainder of her vast family arrived. She could see Jim and Timothy approaching in the rowing boat, but of the little ones there was no sign.

'They promised faithfully,' Nancy said, and grinned ruefully when Molly laughed. 'Really, though, the little beasts should have the decency to show up for your birthday. Next thing to mutiny, this.'

'There's nothing to go cold,' Molly said, 'and I honestly don't mind.' She was about to remind Nancy of much longer delays for much less patient guests when a cry went up from the water's edge, where Titty sat sketching.

'A sail! Well, not a sail,' she amended. 'A canoe, bearing the mountaineers down from the icy reaches of the Dudh-Kosi.'

Bloodcurdling yells from the river joined those from the shore in heralding the approach of the grandchildren. Grace leapt ashore with the painter. Books, knitting, easels were abandoned, as pirates and explorers young and old converged on the circle of chairs on the lawn, and Peggy brought out the teapot.

'Well, then,' Molly said, 'what have you young harum-scarums been up to?'

They all started to tell her at once, and Jim had to bellow to restore order.

'We climbed Everest,' Ted said, as soon as the others had been shushed.

Molly was just glancing behind her to see the great peak, when Kate added, 'And what do you think we found up there?'

 

Beckfoot, September 1942

'I'm too old for all this, Cook,' Molly said. 'A houseful of ten-year-olds, at my age?'

'They'll eat,' Cook said darkly. 'Extra rations won't go far, not the way children eat. And I've enough to be doing.'

Still, in spite of everything, there was no question of not taking them. 'I wonder,' Molly said, 'if Helen would come up from Manchester?'

'Miss Blackett? Aye, you could ask her – though unless she's changed since I saw her last she'll be as much of a nuisance as Miss Nancy and Miss Peggy.' But Cook was smiling, and Molly saw that it might be possible.

***

'I was never much good with children,' Helen had said; she never seemed to realise that she fully deserved her title of Certificated First Class Aunt, but here she was, and Molly was grateful. With Nancy a Wren and Peggy in the WAAF, the prospect of dealing with the evacuees alone had been daunting. Her sister-in-law would probably much rather have been helping the war effort by driving ambulances again, but she was the first to admit that the War Office probably wouldn't have her.

Still, there was plenty at Beckfoot to keep the pair of them busy, with Maisie and Laura in the girls' old room (faded skull-and-crossbones and all), and Maisie's brothers Charlie and Jack in the spare room. None of the four could swim, and the first fortnight had been fraught with anxiety. It was a blessing, Molly reflected, that the lake was shallow at the edges, and that Helen could still fit into her bathing costume and teach the lot of them, if not exactly to swim, then at least not to drown. And it was a greater blessing still that they were out of the way for the best part of five days out of the seven, once term started.

'It does take one's mind off it all,' Molly said after supper on a particularly long Saturday. 'Stopping this lot getting run over or falling in the lake or getting lost on the fells is a practical kind of worry. There's nothing I can do to stop my two getting themselves blown up or or sunk or bombed, and if I wasn't fishing Charlie out of the river every other day I'd have far too much time to sit and brood.'

Helen lit a cigarette and shook the match until it went out. 'I don't know how you can bear it.'

'Nor do I, really.' Molly watched the smoke curling upwards: there was no breeze. She said, suddenly, 'When the worst happens, one thinks that's it. Nothing so awful can ever happen again. And then one realises that the worst could happen all over again, but with someone else. But there it is. One has to bear it.' She was silent for a couple of minutes, before bursting into laughter. 'And it was funny, seeing Charlie all covered in weed and green slime.'

Helen smiled. 'It was, rather.'

'Well, the poor kids,' Molly said, 'they might as well enjoy themselves while they're here. It's only a pity it took a war to get them into the country.'

Helen grunted assent.

***

'Mrs B.,' Maisie asked at breakfast the next morning, 'what's the big hill called, behind the house?'

Molly told her, and added, 'Though when I was a girl we called it the Matterhorn, and my daughters called it Kanchenjunga.'

Maisie nodded gravely. 'I like Matterhorn.'

'Can we climb it?' Jack asked.

'Well...' Molly said, at the same time as Helen was saying, 'I don't see why not. But you kids aren't going alone until you know how to use a compass and ropes. Mrs Blackett and I will come with you.'

'You can go if you like, Helen,' Molly said. 'I haven't climbed it since 1901, and I'm too old and too fat.'

'Nonsense,' Helen said briskly. 'It won't kill you. We'll all go.'

**

And go they did, the next fine weekend, though before the climb was over Molly wished several times that it would kill her, and be done with it.

They must have been a sight, she thought: two women in their fifties, four town children between them, all roped together - but there was little time for vanity when they were scrambling up screes, searching for footholds in the rock, and keeping an anxious eye on the five pairs of boots above her, few of which were really up to the task.

It took Molly some time to recover her breath once at the top, but, aside from a long, grateful swig of water, she paid little attention to the picnic that Helen was assembling from what they had brought. She had another prize in mind. She scrabbled around the base of the cairn, hoping against hope... forty years was a long time, after all. But no. It was there. A round brass box, Queen Victoria glowering from the lid. She shook it experimentally. It rattled – rattled more than it should have done.

'What have you found, Mrs B.?' The children were crowding around her.

'What I came for,' she grinned. 'Ugh, but the lid's jammed on.' She found a penny in her pocket, and twisted it in the groove at the corner of the tin. 'There... oh!'

'What? What?'

'Somebody's been in this tin since I was last here. Look. Two coins – and one of them's much newer than 1901.'

Jack squinted at the halfpenny. '1931. 'S'older than me.'

The women laughed. 'Did you ever see this, Helen?' Molly said more seriously. 'I don't suppose you would have done. Look.' She spread out the scrap of paper, and, exclaimed, 'Oh!'

'Your girls, and those Walkers I never heard the end of,' Helen said, peering at the list of names. 'So they came here, too, did they? Can't say I'm surprised. I only wish I'd thought of leaving a cache when I came up here – four years after you and Jim and Bob,' she added with a smile, turning the paper over.

The message Molly had been searching for had been on the other side. She was immoderately relieved.

'We'll need another bit of paper,' she said. 'There's not much room on this one.'

Helen took an ancient bill from her pocket. 'Here. And a pencil.'

Molly wrote, and passed the paper around the group:

3rd October 1942
We climbed the Matterhorn:
Molly Blackett
Maisie McIntyre
Charlie McIntyre
Jack McIntyre
Laura Cartwright
Helen Blackett

 

Beckfoot, August 1931

It was a summer too sultry for starched frocks and hot suppers. Left to themselves, the Blacketts would have lazed away the days in comfortables, Nancy and Peggy running wild with the Swallows, and Molly taking a deckchair onto the lawn to read every P. G. Wodehouse in the bookcase and live on sandwiches and summer pudding. Cook would have made endless supplies of lemonade and sticky cake, and been as happy as the day was long. Left to themselves, they would have had another glorious summer.

But one could not put off Aunt Maria for ever, and that year she swooped down on them, bringing terror and discord in her wake. A gorgon, Molly thought, and then felt guilty and ungrateful. (And did gorgons swoop, anyway, or was that harpies?) It was all very well for the girls to groan, but she and Jim owed Aunt Maria so much that it seemed churlish to begrudge her bed and board for a couple of weeks every other year.

Still, even the ever-optimistic Molly was bound to admit that it was difficult. She could say, 'different times', and 'things have moved on,' but the long and the short of it was, the way she was bringing Nancy and Peggy up was ten thousand years away from the way that Aunt Maria had brought up her and Jim. There was never going to be a good excuse for that – not one that she could tell her aunt, anyway – and she could not but find it wearing pretending that there was.

She had been doing well, though, until Aunt Maria brought Bob into it. The small humiliations, the sniping, the tight-lipped silences, were bearable, but then Nancy and Peggy were late again, and Aunt Maria waited until they were sitting down, with over-warmed soup in front of them, to say:

'I do appreciate, my dear Mary, that it is optimistic to expect children to assimilate a civilised upbringing without a man about the house to discipline them properly, but I do wonder whether your late husband would approve of the conduct I have observed this week.'

Peggy bounded with indignation.

'He wouldn't care,' Nancy said furiously.

'I hardly think you are in a position to be the judge of that, Ruth,' Aunt Maria said. 'I doubt you remember your father with any accuracy. You cannot have been more than three at the time of his death.'

Molly reached for a handkerchief, too late to disguise a sob.

Aunt Maria turned to her. 'Really, Mary, if you cannot control yourself at table, I am not surprised that your daughters find it difficult to do so.'

'Sorry, Aunt Maria.' She pulled herself together with an effort.

Her daughters' seething anger rolled across the table, and the knowledge that it was directed at their great-aunt was small comfort.

The remainder of the meal was torture: little needling comments from Aunt Maria; defensive responses from Nancy or Peggy, only making things worse; doomed attempts from Jim to smooth the ruffled feathers; futile excuses from herself. And the pudding was burnt. At least, Aunt Maria thought the pudding was burnt. All the other four would have eaten it without a thought. Cook was on the verge of giving notice again.

At last, the agony was over. Aunt Maria never took coffee, and as soon as Nancy and Peggy had been packed off upstairs she expressed her intention of going to bed. Molly escaped to the garden for a good cry. Jim followed her.

'Do you ever think –' she began, then, finding that sentence going nowhere, changed tack. 'I can't see how I could have made them the way Aunt Maria wants them, and not made their lives a misery.'

'Bob would have liked them as they are,' Jim said.

The worst of it was, he was dead right. Bob would have loved their boisterous piratical hoydens as they were, and Bob would have told Aunt Maria so, and sent her packing. She and Jim, restrained by a childhood terror that neither of them could quite shake off, were reduced to crawling submission.

Worse than Aunt Maria's relentless campaign was the way Nancy and Peggy did their best to please, like large untidy butterflies desperately trying to squeeze back into their chrysalises. Surely their mother ought to be able to protect them from such an unnatural process – and here they were shielding her, instead.

She blew her nose angrily. 'I wish they didn't have to look after me. That's where I let Bob down.'

'Oh, Mops,' Jim said.

Upstairs, something went crashing to the floor. Nancy or Peggy, out of bed and almost certainly eavesdropping.

'Go to sleep, you donkeys,' she called, and tried to laugh.

Bob would have liked them as they were. After all, she did.

 

The railway station at the foot of the lake, August 1917

They stood on the platform. At home they were the Blacketts - Bob, and Molly, and Ruth and baby Peg. Here they were only another family. Another wife, and another little girl, and another baby in another perambulator, seeing off another man into the sea of khaki. Molly blinked furiously. No sense in not being able to see him while he was still there.

'I wish you could stay longer,' she said. 'Even a day would be better than nothing...'

'Don't cry,' Bob said, and kissed her while the tears streamed down her cheeks. 'Leave is never long enough. Worth the trip, though, to see you two and the new one.' He rumpled Peg's hair, what there was of it, and she smiled in her sleep.

'Look after your mother,' he said to Ruth. She nodded, solemn. He knelt and hugged her.

And then the whistle was blowing, and Bob was gone.

Molly stood there, Ruth clinging to her hand, until she could no longer pretend that she could see the smoke from the engine, and Peg began to whimper.

It seemed that the journey home was longer than it had ever been before. The mist rolled down over the fells, and she was on one side of them, and Bob was on the other.

 

The lake, January 1911

Few things are as quietly tragic as a fragrant-smelling curl of steam emanating from a hole in the ice where there was once a good hotpot. Molly Turner could almost have cried; it had been a hard morning's skating, and she was hungry. Ten young people out on the ice, and their dinner gone to the bottom of the lake. Herself and Jim, the Harris girls and some cousins of Miss Thornton's, Tom Parnell, and the Blacketts. It was a rare treat for Molly, only allowed because she had managed to persuade Aunt Maria that fresh air was healthy – and now no dinner!

Still, there is no use in crying over spilt milk, and tears will not bring a drowned hotpot back to the surface. The party lunched well enough on chicken sandwiches and hot coffee, and the skating continued with unabated enthusiasm.

Quite apart from anything else, Molly thought, it was a way of keeping warm.

'Race you around the island,' Bob Blackett dared her.

'Which island?'

'That one,' and he was off. Molly laughed, and set off in hot pursuit. He had the longer legs, but she was the better skater, and would have overtaken him before they were half way around had he not wheeled round to face her and caught her hands as she cannoned straight into him.

'You rotten cheat –' she protested as they went over, '- oof!'

'Sorry,' he said, almost entirely unrepentant. 'I didn't mean to knock you over. You're not hurt, are you?'

'A little bruised, I think. Nothing worse. No thanks to you.' She watched him struggle to his feet, amused despite himself.

'Excellent. Will you marry me?'

'What?' Molly looked up from the place where Bob's skate had caught in her skirt and torn it. Her heart was beating ridiculously fast, as if the tumble had shaken her far more than it had any right to. 'What an extraordinary thing to say.'

'But will you?'

Molly stood up, gingerly. Her elbow was beginning to throb, and her face was hot – that's for rushing about on a cold day, she thought.

'If you never do that again.'

'Promise.'

They skated the rest of the way hand in hand.

 

What she saw from the summit of the Matterhorn, August 1901

Half way up a particularly rocky stretch, securely roped between Bob and Jim, Molly was torn between rejoicing in her freedom and wishing that her legs would hurry up and grow. A stride for the boys was a scramble for her, but she was determined to enjoy it. Indeed, she was enjoying it, when she wasn't thinking about what Aunt Maria would have to say about it when they got back.

Certainly they would never be allowed out alone again. There had been an awful moment at breakfast when she had thought they would not get out at all. She and Jim had got up early, dressed in Sunday best for the vicarage picnic to which they had no intention of going. And then Aunt Maria had proposed to go with them in the trap! Escaping from the trap to meet Bob in the woods would be impossible, and, while she and Jim between them would somehow contrive to get away from the picnic, it would waste valuable time.

Molly had stopped herself laughing while Jim earnestly reminded Aunt Maria of how she had suffered with a headache yesterday, and that it would certainly be past eleven o'clock by the time she had arrived home from the vicarage, and how she ought not to be out in the sun, even with a parasol, and that they were perfectly capable of walking, so long as they started straight after breakfast. Aunt Maria, apparently surprised by the uncharacteristic solicitude, had agreed that a little light exercise would do them no harm.

From then on it had been plain sailing. Bob was waiting for them just out of sight of the house, with the practical clothes and kit they had left with him earlier in the week. Sunday clothes being even beastlier than the normal sort, it took a while to change, but half an hour later they were out of the woods and had begun to climb.

There would be an awful row. But it would be worth it.

A solid wall of rock in front of them, screes below and thin air at the top. But Bob seemed to know where the footholds were, and he was up the rockface like a very deliberate spider. 'Watch me, Molly. Put your hands and feet exactly where I put mine.'

'You're a lot taller than me,' Molly grumbled, but did her best.

A haul and a scramble, and her fingers touched grass, 'You're over the worst bit,' Bob was saying. 'Now, pull yourself up. I'm not letting go. There. Come on, let's give Jim a hand.'

They unroped themselves at the top of the crag. 'Easier to walk, when there's less danger of falling,' Bob said. The rest of it was still uphill, but not so terrifyingly so, and Molly managed it unaided.

A ramshackle cairn of stones marked the summit. The sun had long ago burnt off the morning's mist, and the air was clear. Bob flopped to the ground, looking back the way they had come. Molly sat down beside him. 'Such a long way,' she said, 'and look how much you can see from here!'

'The whole lake,' Bob said, 'head to foot. Beckfoot's down there somewhere.' He pointed.

'Never mind the lake,' Jim said. 'Look the other way.'

Molly turned, and the world became infinitely bigger. The hills stretched away forever. She stood up, turned a little further, and there was the sea, deep, deep blue, disappearing into haze at the horizon.

'We could go anywhere,' she said. 'We could do anything. It's all just here.'

'I'm going to,' Jim said. 'I'm going to see the world, some day.'

'I don't know if I will or not.' Molly was never one to make promises she couldn't keep, particularly to herself. 'It's nice to know it's there if I want to, though.'

Bob was looking at the cairn with a critical eye. 'It's come down a bit. It can't have been built very well.'

'Let's mend it,' Jim said. 'And make it bigger.' He set to collecting stones.

'We ought to leave a message, to say we've been here.' Molly began to search in her pockets for a piece of paper. 'Does either of you boys have a pencil?'

'Here – but you can't just leave a scrap of paper up here. It'll blow away, or come to pieces the first time it rains.' Bob was digging in his knapsack. 'Look. If we eat three toffees each, we can use this tin.'

She looked at the picture on the lid. 'QUEEN OF ENGLAND EMPRESS OF INDIA DIAMOND JUBILEE 1897,' she read. 'I hope they aren't four years old.'

'No fear. Though it wouldn't matter if they were – toffee's only sugar, and that keeps.'

Molly took a toffee and, chewing on it, selected a flattish stone. She laid the paper on it and wrote, very deliberately.

'You should put a penny in, to prove it's 1901,' Jim said. 'Somebody might come in a thousand years and open the box. They'd think it was 1897 when we came here.'

'I've written the date on the message,' Molly said, 'but I've got a farthing. Here, Jim: sign.'

'You should have put “Mary”,' Jim said, 'as it's an official document.'

Molly made a face. 'Bob?'

He signed. 'There.' He folded the paper and placed it in the box with great ceremony. Molly added the farthing and put the lid on, tight. Jim found a suitable spot at the base of the cairn and pushed the box in there, covering it over with a large stone.

They stood there in silence for some moments.

'I wish we never had to go home,' Jim said, looking out to sea.

'It can't be helped,' Molly said. 'The great thing is, now we've been here, we know that we can come back.'

**

August the 2nd. 1901.
We climbed the Matterhorn.
Molly Turner.
J. Turner.
Bob Blackett.