It was a long time before Lizzie and her childless neighbour were even on nodding terms again. Lizzie had gone to great lengths – too great, she now confessed to herself – in making it plain to Maggie Willett that her barrenness was a blessing in disguise, the dispensation of a kindly Providence, meant for the protection of defenceless children.
To this monstrous assertion Maggie could advance only the well-being of her Rhode Island Reds, a stance not easy to defend before neighbours who, while not openly hostile to her, were clearly more inclined to favour Lizzie‘s side of the argument than her own.
As day succeeded day, Lizzie grew more aware that she had over-stepped the mark, and the tacit support of her neighbours gave her no comfort. True, she had been entirely justified in seeking to establish that, while parents had every right to chastise their own children, it was not a right that extended to neighbours, childless or otherwise. She knew that the point allowed of no argument, and that every one of her neighbours would have defended it as hotly as she. But, though she repeated this to herself over and over again, she was not reassured. She had gone too far.
Maggie Willett retired from the field thoroughly worsted, and not at all convinced that she had received justice at Lizzie‘s hands. The knowledge of her own barrenness was the more bitter for the additional knowledge that her neighbours on the distaff side were only too inclined to regard it as some sort of failing on her part. She had been cast out like Hagar without even the comfort of her own child. There was no comfort to be found in the world beyond the confines of her own home; she must seek it there.
But Albert Willett was no fool. He refused point-blank to be drawn in. He knew that any husband in that neighbourhood who allowed himself to become enmeshed in the toils of a feminine fracas such as this would have brought down on his own head the accusation that he was a mere tool of his wife‘s, and no proper man. He was only too keenly aware that his manhood was already in question because of his wife‘s childless state, and he had no intention of adding substance to his neighbours‘ unspoken sentiments.
But the ways of Providence are inscrutable, and reliable prophets few. No one could have foreseen the change in Maggie Willett that began to appear even before the noise of battle had died.
There were always sharp eyes enough on the look-out for such changes, but they failed to notice them in Maggie‘s case, doubtless because her outcast state provided few opportunities. True, she had always made it clear that she ‘kept herself to herself‘, which made the opportunities for observation even fewer.
But eventually no one could fail to see that she was acting strangely, and slowly this became a matter for conjecture. It was true that she was no chicken, but she was still rather young for any of her neighbours to have good cause to nod wisely and to talk meaningly of ‘t‘change‘. Comment bred rumour, and rumour comment, and all of it fell far short of the remarkable truth.
There came a day when the secret could be kept no longer. It was Maggie herself who broached it, and in a most unexpected quarter.
Lizzie, returning from chapel between eight o‘clock and half-past on a cool autumnal Sunday evening, became aware of the unmistakable figure of Maggie Willett approaching her from the opposite direction, and clearly on a collision course.
This set a nice problem in tactics. If a meeting was to be avoided, one of them must cross over, and Lizzie could see no sign of any intention to do so on her neighbour's part. She set her face with what she hoped was the right blend of indifference and hauteur, and made up her mind that whoever gave way it should not be Lizzie Garrett.
Maggie drew nearer. It became clear that she was as fixed in her resolve as Lizzie. A meeting could not be avoided. The time for avoiding it was all but past.
Lizzie, who had long repented of the cruel things she had said, and heartily wished them unsaid, weighed the possibility even now of crossing over. But as quickly as the thought came she knew that her chance had gone.
She caught Maggie Willett‘s eye. There was a look in it which she could not fathom. Moreover, and most unexpectedly, Mrs Willett actually seemed to be doing her best to catch Lizzie‘s eye.
Maggie looked away, a bright spot of colour in her cheek. She appeared to be about to take flight. Then, it seemed, she found fresh courage. She took a step towards Lizzie, faltered, and said, in a voice none too well controlled,
‘Evenin‘, Mrs Garrett !‘
Thunderstruck, Lizzie passed her neighbour without reply. Then, knowing herself at a disadvantage now, and troubled in her conscience, she stopped and turned.
Mrs Willett had done the same.
The expression on her face was set and strained. Almost, Lizzie thought foolishly, as though she was trying to smile with a cut lip.
She allowed her own features to relax, and said in a voice almost as strained,
‘Evenin‘, Mrs Willett !‘
Then both turned and continued on the way they had been going, as though this had been any casual meeting. But Lizzie knew better, and her mind was in turmoil. In her confusion she scarcely noticed that Moss, his hand in the hand of his brother Joe, was waiting for her at the entry-end, and she had to be reminded by him of his presence.
Still with her eyes on the back of her retreating neighbour, she absently picked up her small son, methodically moistened a corner of her handkerchief with spittle, and roughly wiped his mouth. On her head, along with the respectable Sunday hat with its lethal hat-pin, she felt all the torment of deserved coals of fire.
But the events of that evening had not yet run their course.
Much later, as she rolled out the ironing-blanket on the kitchen table, stifling as she did so her scruples at doing such work on the Lord‘s day, Lizzie heard a knock at the door.
She made no movement towards it, expecting that at any moment the sneck would rattle, the door would open a little, and the voice of a neighbour would be heard through the crack of the door with the words ‘Are yer theer, Lizzie ?‘ for this was custom and practice. She picked up the two flat irons and laid their soles against the fire-bars.
The knock was repeated, but the sneck did not move.
Clearly, it could not after all be a neighbour calling to borrow a cup of sugar or a spoonful or two of tea. Nor could it be the chapel organist returning the chapel keys. Only a stranger would knock and wait in such a manner, and a stranger on a Sunday evening was something quite out of the ordinary.
The knock came again, this time more loudly. She was obliged to see for herself who the caller might be.
She lifted the latch and opened the door.
Outside on the flagged walk, her face barely discernible in the darkness, was Maggie Willett, clearly in some distress. Timidly, she looked up and down the path, as though fearing that she might be seen. Then she turned towards Lizzie, took a hesitant step forward, and said,
‘Can A come in, Mrs Garrett ?‘
Speechless, Lizzie opened the door wider and allowed her neighbour to step over the threshold.
She closed the door in silence, a silence that lasted only for a moment but a moment which seemed an eternity. She avoided Maggie Willett‘s eyes, quite lost for a suitable greeting or a fitting gesture.
It was Maggie who spoke first.
‘Mrs Garrett,‘ she began, ‘A‘ve got to talk to somebody, else „ ‘
She got no further. Her face suddenly crumpled and, to Lizzie‘s utter astonishment, Mrs Willett – the hard, unfeeling, childless Mrs Willett – broke down and began to weep as though her heart would break.
Though ignorant of the cause of her neighbour‘s distress, Lizzie was in no doubt as to the proper treatment for such a condition.
‘Sit yer down, Mrs Willett ! Come on, love, sit yer down ! A‘ll put t‘kettle on !‘
The tea was ‘mashed‘ and poured out before Maggie gave any sign of being able to control her tears. Lizzie waited patiently, common sense advising her that there was healing in them, and that her neighbour would tell all in the fulness of time. But the sobs died away without any sign from Maggie Willett that she was yet capable of speech, and at length Lizzie felt obliged to ask,
‘What‘s the trouble then, Mrs Willett ?‘
The question, delivered in Lizzie‘s kindliest tone, gave every sign of opening the flood-gates again, but with an apparent effort of will her neighbour at last found her tongue.
‘A don‘t know what A‘m cryin‘ for,‘ she mumbled. ‘It‘s nowt to cry about, really. Only A‘m – ‘ and her eyes began to brim again.
‘Come on, love,‘ said Lizzie, stirring a spoonful of condensed milk into her own cup and pushing the tin across to her neighbour. ‘Sup yer tea !‘
And at last the storm subsided enough to allow Maggie Willett to make herself and the reason for her visit understood. The news was so startling that at first Lizzie almost failed to grasp its full significance. Then she sat back, all but lost for words herself, though highly gratified at being entrusted with such momentous tidings.
‘But what made yer come to me, Mrs Willett ?‘
‘Well, it were Albert‘s idea, really. A‘ve nobody to turn to, y‘understand. No folk of me own. And Albert‘s mother – well, she‘s not the sooart as A‘d want to go to and talk about that. Not about that !‘
She stopped, and in her eyes there was a look of joy of such intensity that it was almost painful to see. There was silence for a time while Lizzie digested the astonishing tidings. Then, without giving any sign of turning from the subject under discussion, she reached for the thickly-padded iron-holder, removed the flat-irons from the fire-bars, rolled up the ironing-blanket and put it away. There would be no ironing done in the Garrett household this night.
Then she turned to her neighbour and said,
‘Mrs Willett, are yer sure ?‘
Maggie nodded, smiled, and lowered her head.
‘Aye, A‘m sure ! A‘ve allus been reg‘lar, like. Albert says A‘m a walkin‘ calendar. And now it‘s two months A‘ve missed. Besides, he made me goo to t‘doctor‘s. Oh yes, A‘m sure !‘
She stopped, as though to savour afresh all the hopes and the fears of those two months, the egg-shell fragility of her hopes, and the glorious realization of joy now, and joy to come. Her eyes were dry now, and shining.
Then she went on, and now with the voice of assurance,
‘A said to Albert as A‘d got to talk to somebody. A‘d just got to talk to somebody as knows about such things. An‘ ‘e said why don‘t yer talk to Mrs Garrett ? After all, ‘e said, she‘s ‘ad six. An‘ she‘s reared ‘em all. An‘ they‘re such a bonny lot, Mrs Garrett, an‘ – well, A ‘ope yer don‘t mind, that‘s all !‘
Lizzie made haste to assure her that indeed she did not mind, and that she would do all she could. To speak truth, she was highly flattered, though not completely clear in her mind why she should have been chosen to be the vessel for such an outpouring. But she was mightily relieved by the knowledge that their quarrel was a thing of the past and now would never rear its head again. And the reference to her loved family in such terms had gone far to ensure that Maggie Willett would from that moment get all the help that it was in Lizzie‘s power to give. Her neighbour seemed to sense something of all this, and hastened to strengthen her claim still more firmly.
‘Yer know, Mrs Garrett, A was that upset. That day, a mean. An‘ Albert did his best to – well, to comfort me, like. ‘E ‘asn‘t allus been that ‘appy about things, yer know. A man feels it, not ‘avin‘ a son. But now it‘s ‘appened – well, A can tell yer, ‘e‘s neether to ‘old nor to bind, ‘e‘s that glad !‘
Lizzie was about to speak, but sensed that there was more to come.
‘Yer know, when – when yer shouted at me, Mrs Garrett – no, no, let me finish ! A shan‘t talk about it ever again ! A – A didn‘t understand, yer see. Why you should feel like that, A mean. A didn‘t understand, not – well, not ‘avin‘ one of me own, like. But now – !‘
And there the long dispute ended.
No apologies were given or received. None was expected. There was only an unspoken acceptance on the part of both neighbours of the changed climate, signalled by the use of first names for the first time.
And now the discussion of things feminine could begin, with Lizzie delighted – as who is not ? – to sit in the seat of the acknowledged expert, with Maggie Willett hanging breathlessly on every word. The tea flowed as freely as their talk, their faces grew hectic with the fever and exertion of the conversation, and time and Lizzie‘s ironing were both forgotten, until the return of Jim from chapel duties brought the party to an end.