Mariana sat in the orchard.
It was a sunny, warm spring day and the world flourished about her. The plum trees had blown away into dainty white petals which floated down in the breeze, twirling gently like a sigh, till they reached the long, wet grass below. Amongst the plums grew several pear trees, Conference and Williams. Their blossoms were swiftly opening up before her eyes, showing a certain impatience to join in on the parade. On the other side of the orchard stood Bramley and Cox’s Orange Pippins, sturdy old apples, pink buds still tight shut as if waiting for the blowing over of the other blossoming trees. Then they would burst forth into huge showy flowers and take centre stage.
She felt an immense sense of peace. The sun was shining warm but not too hot upon her face, her body relaxed. Never in her life had she felt so tranquil. Life had always been hard. She was sent to work in a factory as soon as she left school and it seemed to her that she had never stopped working since.
Her mind dwelt tenderly on that first meeting with Michael. All the girls in the factory were in love with him. Her job at Freemantle’s Household Equipment was to fit and screw together the parts of mincing machines and other small household appliances. She hated the job, hated it with all her heart and soul. It was tedious and boring and it was indoors. Mariana loathed being shut up all day in an airless, windowless place like this. On top of everything she was always so clumsy and found it hard to get her fingers to work as they should.
‘If you lose any more screws, we’ll dock the money from your wages,’ the foreman yelled at her when he found her on her knees again, searching for lost nuts and bolts.
‘I can’t help it, Mr. Jackson,’ she said, ’they’re so small and fiddly and I’ve got big hands.’
‘I’ll say you have, they’re like plates of meat,’ he replied, ’don’t be so bloody cheeky either. I’ve got my eye on you. Troublemaker you are.’
When he had gone on his way to yell at someone else, Mariana looked at her large bony hands and sighed.
’He’s so mean,’ she muttered to herself, ’I can’t help having horrible big hands and feet. Take after my Dad, don’t I? It’s his fault.’
‘I’d never think of a little slip of a thing like you as a troublemaker,’ said a pleasant, cultured voice and looking up, Mariana saw a tall, slim man in a smart grey suit who had come in with Mr. Jackson. He seemed quite old to Mariana, thirty odd maybe, dark-haired with a wisp of a moustache on his upper lip. His eyes, brown and warm as chocolate, stared into hers. She felt herself colour up and dropped her gaze.
He took her hands in his and looked at them for a while.
‘They’re not like plates of meat at all,’ he said, ’you’ve got lovely, long tapering fingers, that’s why they look large. You should be a pianist. You could play Liszt with hands like these, did you know that?’
‘No sir,’ she said confused. She hadn’t a clue what he was talking about.
‘Liszt was a composer. He had big hands too and his music is hard to play because other people can’t reach the notes he could reach,’ the man said. Then he smiled and patted her on the cheek, ’but there! It’s all nonsense to you, isn’t it? What’s your name, my dear?’
‘A pretty name for a pretty face.’
And he went off to join Mr. Jackson who had stopped and was looking round for him.
‘Do you know who that was?’ said Mabel who worked next to Mariana on the bench, ‘have you got the faintest clue who that was?’
‘No. Who is he?’
‘That’s Mr. Freemantle’s eldest son, Michael. Every girl here, every girl is in love with him. And he talked to you! Said you were pretty!’
Mabel looked at Mariana stunned with amazement that anyone in the world might find her even remotely attractive. Mariana was far too small and thin, her hands and feet like boats, her fair hair always screwed up in a messy bun, not set in a smart perm like Mabel’s. She had nice eyes, dark grey irises ringed with black framed by long lashes and a full, pink mouth; Mabel grudgingly allowed her that. But in general she was a frump and just turned fifteen. She’d be a right mess time she was thirty.
Mariana ignored Mabel’s incredulity. She felt her heart open up like a flower in the sunshine. Nobody had ever looked at her like that or spoken with such kindness and warmth and she found it almost painful. Her portion at home was always slaps from her mother, harsh words or a belting from her father. Her brothers bullied her and seemed to think she was the household slavey and only her younger sister was nice and listened to her complaints with some sort of sympathy. Mainly because she was coming in line for the same sort of treatment herself now that she was seven and old enough to help about the house.
Mariana gazed after Michael Freemantle with a feeling akin to adoration. It was as if a god or an angel had come her way and stooped to notice her humble, pathetic existence. She smiled to herself. She would treasure the meeting and the words and the kindness and it would warm and protect her whenever anyone was being harsh and mean to her.
Mr. Jackson had not let the little conversation with the boss’s son escape him. But rather than helping Mariana, it seemed to add to his dislike of her. He picked on her whenever he could and she often went home crying with the sting of his unkind words in her ear. Neither did the other girls take to the fact that, of all people, the gorgeous Michael Freemantle had spoken to that little frump in Mincers and Mangles.
No, the memory never failed her. Mariana would see the hostile looks, listen to Mr. Jackson ranting on and smile to herself for in her mind, Michael Freemantle stood before her, his brown eyes gazing into her own and her hand in his for a few, precious moments. And that secret, little smile made the others even angrier.
‘You can wipe that smirk off your face and all,’ shouted Mr. Jackson one day. He was being especially unkind to her while she was dwelling hard in her pleasant memory. She dropped another screw on the floor and stared at it unseeingly.
The harsh, unkind voice broke through her little dream.
‘You can come to my office tonight and I’ll make sure that smile is wiped off your face then! You don’t pull your weight here. Time for you to go, my girl.’
Mr. Jackson stalked off and she knew with a sinking feeling that tonight she was going to get her marching orders. That would mean a beating from her father and a screaming fit from her mother.
Why wait till tonight? She might as well leave now and maybe look around for another job before going home with the bad news.
She gathered together her few things, changed out of her overalls and walked to the door. Jackson came hurrying back when he saw her leaving.
‘And where the bloody hell are you going?’
‘I’m leaving, Mr. Jackson. Seeing as you don’t want me here.’
The foreman glowered at her. Her cheek took him by surprise. He felt robbed of his desire to take her to task later on and make her cringe and plead a little.
‘Well good riddance. Come and get your cards then.’
They walked to his office and on the way they met Michael Freemantle. He had just parked his car in the special bay reserved for VIP’s and was coming over to the office.
‘What’s the problem, Jackson?’
‘It’s this girl, sir. She’s been nothing but trouble since she began. She’s decided to walk out and won’t hear no sense.’
Michael looked at Mariana.
‘It’s Mariana of the Moated Grange,’ he said with a smile, ’isn’t it?’
‘Mariana Saxby, sir. Don’t know about moated grange.’
‘Tennyson,’ smiled the young man, ‘sorry…I just remember things that way. Yes, I remember you, Mariana with the lovely eyes and long fingered hands.’
Mr. Jackson stared at him as if thinking his boss had taken leave of his senses.
Michael smiled his good humoured smile and said, ‘Leave it to me, Jackson, I’ll sort the young lady out. You go back to the factory floor and keep your eye on things.’
‘Yes, sir,’ said Jackson unwillingly.
When he had gone, Michael Freemantle turned and took Mariana’s hand.
‘Come on,’ he said, ‘let’s have a cup of tea together. Time for a tea break. The boss says so.’
‘But I’m leaving, sir. I’m not staying. He was going to give me the sack so I upped and went. He’s a bully, sir.’
‘You sound very determined about it and quite right too. Yes, Jackson is a bully but he’s a good foreman who’s been with us for years. Father won’t get rid of him, I’m afraid. On the other hand, you are quite right. You shan’t stay in this factory. You’ll work in the office instead. You’re a bright enough girl, I can see that. We’ll smarten you up and train you up for something far better.’
Mariana stared at him.
’Thank you, thank you,’ she stammered.
And work in the office she did from then on, rising in time to be one of Michael Freemantle’s private secretaries.
Though they were always good friends, she never dated Michael nor expected such a thing. He was always kind and never ceased to tease and call her Mariana of the Moated Grange. He married a girl of his own sort. Mariana knew she would never have been comfortable mixing in his set or he with hers yet she always cherished a special deep, grateful love for him. Eventually, Mariana married George Hutchinson, who ran a little stationer’s business in Islington. They had been married some years when the war broke out. George became a private and was killed at El Alamein. Mr. Jackson was too old to go to war and joined the Home Guard. Mariana often came across him looking quite smart in his uniform and exchanged some banter with him. Time had mellowed their feelings towards one another
Mariana went back to work for Freemantle’s during the war, now turned over to a munitions factory. Old Freemantle had died and Michael was the owner.
‘Good to have you back Mariana of the Moated Grange,’ he chuckled when they met again, ’you were always my most efficient secretary. Didn’t I do well to take you over and be your Pygmalion?’
‘You did, Mr. Freemantle,’ she smiled, ‘and I’ll always be grateful.’
She knew what he was talking about now. She’d got herself an education since those days when she first saw Michael Freemantle on the factory floor.
It had been a hard life bringing up the three kids single handed. She’d always had to work and work. It had been a worrying, anxious life sometimes. But now she was at peace in the apple orchard. She looked at the blossom falling, watched a robin hop near her foot, and listened to the cooing of the wood pigeons in the tree. She turned her head at the sound of voices and watched lazily as the nurse came up and tucked the blanket around her legs and wheeled her back into the nursing home.
‘Time for supper now, Mrs. Hutchinson. You’ve had a lovely spell out here all day. But it’s time to go indoors now, I’m afraid.’