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Chapter 1 - Inland Far


IN THE middle of a big ugly town in the Midlands there is a big ugly house; a tall house of red brick with a lot of chimneys and no garden. On the front door is a brass plate which says:

“St. Ursula’s Home for Female Orphans.”

One summer afternoon ten of the orphans sat in the big front room of the Home and sewed. They were all between twelve and fifteen years old, and they all whispered and giggled except Catherine Harris, who was so intent on her embroidery that she never heard a word anyone was saying. She was good at sewing and liked it, but that was not why she was absorbed in her work. She was making some table mats with a design of flowers rather like silver buttercups, and as she worked at the flowers she wondered for the thousandth time what they were, and what they had to do with her, and whether she would ever find out who had picked three of them and given them to her.

The whispering stopped abruptly as Miss Abbott came into the room. She was in charge of all the orphans, and nobody dared to whisper when she was anywhere near. She was small and brisk and fair-minded. Her hair was grey and her eyes bright blue, and today she carried a very dull-looking book in dark binding. Cathie often thought afterwards how different her whole life would have been, if Miss Abbott had not chosen Wordsworth for them to study that day, and had not given her that particular part of that particular poem to read.

The orphans took turns at reading aloud, standing at the big desk, while the others sat at their table and sewed and looked as though they were listening hard. Miss Abbott sat beside them and sometimes helped the clumsy ones to thread a needle.

They were in the middle of a very long poem when Cathie’s turn came, and she went up to the desk feeling guilty, for she had not been listening. However, she was quick on the uptake and a good reader, and in a few seconds she had found the place, although she hadn’t seen the poem before. She started off clearly and carefully, as Miss Abbott had taught her. Her pale face was serious, and her straight brown hair swung forward as she bent her head over the book. In the dark blue dress and black stockings that all the orphans wore she looked even thinner than she was.

Miss Abbott looked severely at her and wondered whether to stop her and make her begin again. She knew Cathie wasn’t attending to what she was reading.

Suddenly, though, her clear voice halted, stumbled over a word, went back and read the line again, and went on in such a jerky, breathless manner that all the other girls looked up in surprise.

“ ‘Hence in a season of calm weather,’ ” read Cathie,

“ ‘Though inland far we be,

‘Our souls have sight of that immortal sea —’ ” Immortal sea! That was it, exactly! She had once had a dream, or a memory, of the sea, and now here it was again, clearer and clearer with every word.

“ ‘— that immortal sea

‘Which brought us hither,

‘Can in a moment travel thither,

‘And see the children sport upon the shore —’ ”

It wasn’t a dream, it couldn’t be! She had played by the sea, once in that faraway past that had vanished for ever. She could just remember the bright sky and waves and sand. It was like seeing something out of the corner of your eye.

“Go on, Catherine,” said Miss Abbott impatiently.

Cathie clutched the book and made a great effort.

“ ‘— And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.’ ”

She whispered the words to herself again, forgetting where she was and what she was doing. She had almost remembered it all now. The sand was white, and she sat there with bare pink toes, and before her rolled the mighty waters, great green foaming waves, and she was playing with something — what was it?

“Catherine!” said Miss Abbott.

“Oh, please!” exclaimed Cathie. “Just a minute.”

“What’s the matter with you? Will you please continue?”

“Oh, be quiet!” Cathie cried, for the picture was fading and she couldn’t remember now what it was like at all. Her pale face grew red, and her eyes flashed.

“Cathie’s going off the deep end again,” muttered one of the girls under her breath.

Miss Abbott rapped on the table, and said sharply,

“Catherine, will you behave yourself and go on!”

Cathie grew desperate. She screamed “No!” at the top of her voice, flung the book down, and rushed out of the room, leaving an excited and horrified silence behind her.

There was nowhere much to go to in St. Ursula’s to get away from people, but when Cathie felt desperate she always made for the top of the house. She ran upstairs to the attics, and flung herself breathlessly against the wall by the window of the box-room.

“I wish I could go somewhere and scream!” she exclaimed, clenching her fists so tightly that her nails hurt her. “I can’t remember now, and I so nearly had it. White sand — I remember that. Where was it? Oh where?”

She pressed her face to the window and looked out at the roofs and chimneys, and some trees in the distance where the town began to give way to country. In all the years she had been at St. Ursula’s she had never been to the sea. Sometimes they were taken into the country for the day, and once or twice they had gone to help on farms in the summer holidays, but if Cathie had ever really played by the sea it must have been in the days when she had a home and family and wasn’t called Catherine Harris.

To order your copy of Run Away Home see our online shop, visit our Edinburgh bookshop or one of our Stockists.