“Look at you, turned up like a bad penny!” Sarah smiled and crossed her arms across her swollen belly.
But the sullen young man stood silently at the door, and she felt her heart sink. How could she have said such a thing?
“It’s been a long time,” she stammered. “I said to Mary in my letter, ‘Why, I won’t recognise Ben. I haven’t seen him since he was a little lad.’ Come in. The fire is blazing.”
Sarah tried to smooth over her gaffe with chatter and bustle.
“How was the journey? That wind doesn’t stop at this time of year, does it?”
“It’s cold enough.” The young man’s dark eyes darted nervously round the cramped room and for an instant Sarah saw her older sister’s anxious face on the day she’d married Ben’s father. It seemed so long ago. How Mary could have lost her heart to Mick Hanshaw, with his roving eye and rough ways, had baffled Sarah.
When he’d given up on farming and had taken her sister north to live in a bleak mining town, Sarah had been beside herself with worry. She’d shed no tears when Mick was killed in an accident a year ago, and nor had anyone else in the village.
“The light’s going. Joseph will be in soon, and Johnny and Beth home from school. I’m not sure where Jenny’s gone.” She frowned for a moment.
Ben dropped his bundle of belongings on the flagged floor. Even through the stale cottage air and cooking, Sarah caught his sour smell, reminding her of the appalling conditions in which her sister lived. She shuddered, remembering what she’d read between the lines of Mary’s letters. It was no wonder that Ben had got himself into so much trouble.
If only Sarah could convince her sister to get herself out of the miserable place and move closer. She’d begged her to travel down with Ben and spend Christmas with them, though, thinking about it, she couldn’t imagine how they’d all fit into the tiny cottage!
But Mary seemed paralysed with all that had happened, and with her health failing there seemed little hope. If Ben made a fresh start, then perhaps Mary could find the strength and will to do the same.
“How’s your mum?” Sarah set down the teapot and Ben looked up, his eyes darting to the range where the remains of the midday stew still simmered.
As Sarah ladled out a plateful for him, a glint of eagerness animated his gaunt, unshaven face. She cut a slab of bread and set it in front of him.
“Her chest is bad and she coughs all the time,” he said, pushing a lock of greasy hair out of his eyes. His hands were none too clean but just this once Sarah decided to relax her standards. It was clear she would have to tread carefully if she were to make any headway with this lad.
“Ben, I suppose this is a good time to talk about why you’re here.”
He chuckled ruefully.
“Didn’t have much choice, did I?”
“That’s not what I meant. Surely you’re aware of how lucky you are? You deceive your mother, take her last pennies and go off to the city, claiming to look for work. Just where do you think you’d be today if the lady whose home you broke into hadn’t happened to have been the secretary of the Ladies’ Royal Benevolent Society? It was only because of your mother’s condition and that good lady’s pity that this arrangement was made.”
The young man’s eyes narrowed.
“I can look after Mum in my own way.” He stood up as if to leave, but then looked down at the plate of food.
Sarah reached out, her hand nearly touching his arm.
“Please, Ben. This can work for us all if we’re willing to make an effort. Davey, my husband’s eldest . . . well, let’s just say that he no longer feels he can work in the fields alongside his dad. That’s why Mr Callow needs your help. You need a fresh start, for your mother’s sake as much as your own. We’ll give you food and lodging, and Joseph is willing to give you work. He doesn’t know about your past trouble, Ben. I didn’t think he needed to know, and if you keep quiet, behave yourself and work hard, we’ll all get along very well.”
Guilt flooded through her. How could she have deceived Joseph? But it was for everyone’s benefit. Had she told Joseph about Ben’s past, then he might not have consented to the plan. She would make it all work; she promised herself that.
“So, Ben, do you understand what will be expected of you?”
Before he could answer, Sarah had stood up to see who was coming across the yard.
“That must be the children back, or . . . goodness me!”
While Ben gobbled up the meal in huge mouthfuls, Sarah hurried to the door. A breathless Emily flung herself into her stepmother’s arms.