The Fountain - By Mary Nichols


The early morning sun glinted on the river and sparkled in the droplets falling from the oars of the boat. The rower, a young man dressed in a dinner jacket, was showering his two passengers with water, making them squeal in pretend outrage. They had been to a college ball and now, at seven-thirty in the morning, were still enjoying themselves.

‘Simon, leave off!’ Penny grumbled. ‘If you ruin my dress, I’ll never speak to you again.’ The garment was made of creamy satin and clung to an enviable figure.

‘Please, Simon, do stop,’ Barbara added. ‘I don’t fancy a swim.’ She had large greeny-blue eyes beneath winged brows, a straight nose and a well-defined mouth, which was obviously more used to laughter than sorrow. Her dress was of cerise-and-cream-striped taffeta with an off-the-shoulder neckline, huge puffed sleeves and a bias-cut skirt.

‘For you, sweetheart, anything.’ He resumed rowing.

It was at Newnham Barbara had met Penny and they had hit it off straight away. Penny had unusual red-gold hair and a flawless complexion. She had been sent to college by her wealthy parents to channel her energies away from the idea of being an actress into something they considered more suitable for a young lady. Barbara didn’t think it had worked. Penny only just managed to do the work required of her, being more interested in amateur dramatics and going to the theatre. This year she had taken her finals, while Barbara still had a year to go, but they had sworn to keep in touch.

It was through Penny that Barbara had met Lieutenant Simon Barcliffe. ‘He needs taking out of himself,’ her friend had told her. ‘He’s become withdrawn, not the laughing brother I waved away four years ago. You will be good for him.’ His hair was slightly fairer, less red, than Penny’s and his eyes were cornflower blue, but the family likeness was there in the shape of their faces, the slightly square jaw and firm mouth.

When the subject of the ball had come up, Penny had suggested Simon should partner Barbara and both had been happy with the arrangement. Everyone had been determined to enjoy themselves and try to forget the horror which most of those who had stayed behind could only half imagine. They had danced to the music of two orchestras who took it turn and turn about to keep it going until dawn. No one wanted the night to end, but when the electrically lit night gave way to a pink dawn, Simon had suggested taking a boat down the river to a pub he knew would be open and serving breakfast.

Simon was fun, didn’t seem to be able to take anything seriously, but Barbara guessed that was only a facade. He had come back from the hell of the trenches without a scratch, but sometimes when Barbara looked at him, she noticed a shadow pass across his face and his eyes had a faraway look, as if a ghost had nudged him. It was gone in an instant and he was his usual light-hearted self, making jokes and teasing. She had seen that haunted look on other faces, men in her hometown, who had come back from the front line, changed for ever by what they had endured. But they were the lucky ones: so many had found their last resting place in the mud of Flanders, leaving grieving wives, mothers, sweethearts.

A mile further up the river, they tied up at the landing stage of a riverside pub and sat at one of the outside tables. ‘I’m going to have the lot,’ Simon said, as a waiter hovered over them. ‘How about you, Penny?’

‘Coffee will do for me,’ she answered. ‘Supper at two o’clock in the morning plays havoc with my digestion. What about you, Barbara?’

‘Just coffee,’ she said. ‘I’m going home to Melsham today. Dad’s expecting me. We are going to plan a holiday in Scotland, though we can’t go until the harvest is in.’

‘Going on holiday with your father,’ Simon mocked. ‘Doesn’t he have lady friends?’

‘He’s not like that!’ Barbara said hotly. ‘Dad’s never looked at another woman. He wouldn’t.’

‘Celibate for six years, how the poor man must be suffering!’

‘Simon!’ his sister exclaimed. ‘You’re not in the army now.’

‘Sorry,’ he said contritely. ‘Tongue ran away with me.’

Penny suddenly noticed the big man standing on the towpath beside his bicycle, wearing a paint-stained check shirt and corduroy trousers. She nudged Barbara. ‘Who’s he?’ she whispered, nodding towards him. ‘He’s been standing there watching us for