Living By The Land – Episode 22

“I’M Matthew.”

Her young partner’s words cut across her roving thoughts and Louisa looked guiltily across at him. He was almost exactly her height though his lanky frame clearly had plenty of growth in it yet, and there was a familiar twinkle in his eye.

“Matthew? Are you . . .?”

“Amelia’s brother? Yes, and you’re Louisa.”

“How do you know?”

“Amelia told me her new friend was the prettiest girl in the room, so it must be you.”

Louisa giggled. Clearly charm ran in the family!

“It’s nice to meet you.”

“And you.”

He took the chance to kiss her hand as he spun her. Louisa knew he was just playing, but was gratified to see Callum watching jealously. For a second their eyes met, then the dance claimed her again and the moment was gone. Was this how it would be all night, she wondered a little desperately, but now the dance was ending and Amelia was bounding over.

“Oh, you two have met? Perfect! Has he been charming you, Louisa?”

She slung an arm around her brother’s shoulders and gave him a squeeze.

“Not charming,” Matthew protested cheekily, “just telling the truth.”

“He’s a scamp,” Amelia said. “He will break hearts.”

“I’ve learned it all from you.”

Brother and sister jostled each other affectionately, but then Amelia stiffened.

“Is Dad here?”

Louisa saw Matthew’s shoulders tighten, too. He nodded curtly over to the bar and Louisa saw a shockingly skinny man hunched up against one end, his head half sunk in a pint of ale. As if sensing their stare he looked up, his eyes cloudy and unfocused although they seemed to zoom in on Amelia all the same. He rose and staggered towards them just as Tiernan stepped up from the opposite direction.

“No!” Louisa heard her friend whisper in horror.

She moved decisively.

“Tiernan!” she cried, stepping across before he could get any closer and taking his arm in a way that felt terribly forward. “Do tell me more about these hills of yours. Are they really so much higher than our Derbyshire ones?”

His eyes followed Amelia but he was too polite to ignore Louisa. He did, however, refuse to let her draw him away and they stood awkwardly, exchanging banal sentences to which neither was paying any attention. They were both uncomfortably aware of a furious conversation between Amelia and the unsteady man trying to hang on to her.

“Who is that?” Tiernan asked eventually, cutting across Louisa’s stumbling questions about the Cheviot hills.

Louisa sighed. She crossed her fingers tightly behind her back.

“Some relative or other, I think. An uncle, maybe?”

“Oh. It looks as if Amelia needs help. Perhaps I should go over.”

Louisa panicked. She was sure her friend wouldn’t want her beau meeting her drunken father, especially when she, Louisa, had lied about his identity. She glanced round, seeking inspiration, but at that moment she was saved by young Matthew, bearing a fresh tankard of ale for his father.

The old farmer took it and drank deep, sinking on to a hay bale as he did so, his eyes clouding again as if blanking out everything but the drink before him. Amelia disentangled herself and turned away. Louisa saw anguish sparkle briefly in her friend’s eyes.

Alison Cook