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The village had changed since Carolyn had last been there. Although the fallen leaves from the towering oak and maple trees which lined the paths still covered the ground, they seemed darker than they had done when she was a child. She remembered back then, the branches on the trees seemed to reach out to her, as if to offer her comfort and safety whilst she walked home in the early evening, but now it felt as though they had forgotten those days gone by. As she walked further through the paths that led to the house, a sense of fear washed over her. The air became cooler and the wind began to whistle hauntingly through the trees causing the leaves to rise from the ground and spin in a frenzy of whirlwinds. As she reached the old oast house, she stood awkwardly by the iron gates which guarded its perimeter. The leaves now settled stiffly around her feet as if the wind had depleted them of all energy. She had come a long way, but finally, Carolyn had reached her destination. But she still had a long way to go.
Just then, the door of the oast house was flung open. Carolyn managed to leap behind the well next to the gate making a small shuffling noise which she could only hope would go unnoticed. Her heart began to beat up to her throat, so she placed her forefinger in the nape of her neck and pressed gently to ease the thumping. Carolyn noticed the edge of her long burgundy-coloured skirt displayed itself slightly from behind the well and, hearing footsteps getting closer towards her, she prayed that the skirt could pass as a leaf fallen on the ground. After just moments, the footsteps stopped, and as she peered slowly out from behind the well, Carolyn could see that the door was now closed and their appeared to be no-one around. Gently, she straightened herself to standing, but within a moment, her blood turned cold. She could feel behind her the presence of a figure standing close-by. She was frozen to the spot.
'You bring shame on this village,' spoke a deep, hoarse voice. 'You will leave immediately.'
Carolyn turned around helplessly to see the face of her aunt Isobel glaring back at her. The lines on her face had deepened since she had seen her last and the dark circles under her eyes looked dry and puffy. It had been twelve years since she had seen Aunt Isobel. In those twelve years she had never ventured back to the village. They were right, she had brought shame there. Twelve years ago, the village was a rich place, thriving with industry. The village sold their products to towns all over England. They were the cheapest around and so everyone came to them to buy their goods. Many people in the village didn't need to work as money was distributed well between them all. But then Carolyn discovered the secret. She had just turned sixteen and had been allowed to go into the centre to shop for a new outfit. It was the hottest day of the year. She remembered the village was bustling and the heat was becoming unbearable. Undoing the top button of her shirt, she had to get away from the crowds and find an open space. Not realising how far she'd walked, Carolyn noticed a large, green concrete building in the woods, overgrown with weeds and shrubs. 'DANGER. HIGH VOLTAGE' read the sign. But, intrigued by the sight of this building, Carolyn wanted to know what it contained. As she approached she heard the faint sounds of machines chugging and voices speaking in a language she couldn't quite make out. The door was locked, but she could just about see through the dirty, mud-stained window on the side of the building. Peering in, to her amazement, there sat what must have been two hundred or so small Asian boys, no more than ten years old and some as young as six, all working away at the machines in the unbearable heat. Each had a small cup of water beside them, but the room was just one big space, with a small pot in each corner. Carolyn was overcome with emotion. Although she could not be sure of what she was seeing, she knew it felt wrong. She had never seen any Asian children or grown-ups in the village. She wondered where they were sleeping at night. She stood for a while fixated to the window until she heard the sound of a key being turned and the door being pushed open, which slammed against the concrete. Carolyn jumped with fright and slapped her hand securely over her mouth to be sure she wouldn't make a sound. She just managed to peer in through the window one more time, her hands shaking, to see a tall, heavy-built man shouting fiercely at the boys. As he turned around, she could see it was her own father. He chucked one of their cups of water into the air and the child eagerly tried to catch it from falling but to no avail. Her father smacked him on the back of the head and took him by the scruff of his neck back to his chair. The quivering panic which she felt, sitting stiffly still by the side of that building, she would never forget. And now, she felt that same terror.
'Aunt Isobel I have come to see my sister as I know she is not well,' Carolyn spoke calmly.
'YOU have no family here young lady.' Aunt Isobel's wrinkled finger pointed inches away from Carolyn's eyes.
For weeks now, Carolyn had practised what she would say to Aunt Isobel. But now, those well rehearsed phrases rolled hectically around her mind, making no sense and fading swiftly away, leaving her with nothing but desperate hope in her heart.
'You WILL let me through.' Carolyn pushed her aunt's arm away and began to run towards the house. 'Rose! Rose!' she cried. Her long, thick chestnut-coloured hair, which was neatly placed into a bun on the top of her head, fell from its pins and hung, lank over her pale face. It was no good. She was quickly stopped in her tracks. Her hand trembled as she removed her hair from her eyes. 'Aunt Isobel! Please let me through. I must see my sister,' she wept.
'You will LEAVE,' screeched her Aunt.
Carolyn turned away. She was too weak to fight. Placing the hood of her cape over her head, she began to make her way towards the only friend she knew she could rely on in the village. She wasn't ready to give up.
'Oh my goodness Carolyn, what on earth are you doing here?'
She was quickly grabbed by the arm and pulled into a house. Mary checked around to ascertain that Carolyn's presence had gone unnoticed then closed the large, wooden door firmly shut.
'I had to come,' she said, removing her black hood. 'I got your letter about Rose being unwell. Thank you.'
'She has a fever. She hasn't shown many signs of improvement for a few days now. I'm sorry Carolyn. But I didn't expect you to turn up here!'
'I've already seen Aunt Isobel. She wouldn't let me in and you were the only person I could come to.'
'She knows you're here? I told you I would write to you and keep you up to date. That alone is a risk I am willing to take for you. But this!'
'I know I shouldn't have come but I was going mad Mary.'
Mary hadn't changed much, thought Carolyn. She was still petite and pretty, with flowing blonde hair and thin, pink lips. Yet no matter how beautiful she was, she still had an air of nervousness about her, as if uncomfortable in her own skin.
Many a long year had passed for Mary since Carolyn had to leave. Villagers were now working long hours in the factories and some businesses were not able to withstand the financial loss after the incident, which forced closures of factories and unavoidable redundancies. Locals were venturing out into the towns to find work and not coming home to their families until late into the evening, stressed and tired from the day's grind. Although the village was now just beginning to develop new business, it was still remembered as the village of shame. It would never be the way it was before, before Carolyn exposed the secret.
'You look so tired Carolyn, and I expect you must be starved. Here, sit down and I'll make you some food and tea.'
Mary had known Carolyn would come. She knew the determination in her heart. Mary preferred to keep away from trouble and do what was asked of her. She had been the first person Carolyn came to when she found the building with the Asian boys. She desperately wanted Mary to fight the cause with her, to tell what she had seen to the authorities and to the rest of the village. But Mary had turned her back on her like all the rest, afraid of what would become of the happy, rich life she led there.
Mary remembered the fun they used to have, playing in the woods together. They would rub berries on their lips to make them red like the women they had seen when the circus visited. They imagined themselves to be circus women who would wear beautiful dresses and ride white horses. They rode around the woods on horses made from twigs and would jump over fallen trees. They never tired of each other's company and, as they grew older, Carolyn would share with Mary her plans to have a career, to travel the world and study at university to learn about history. Mary would talk about her dream of having beautiful trinkets in her house that she would share with a handsome, rich man. Things were good back then.
'It's been twelve long years without you Mary. I think of our friendship all the time,' Carolyn announced, whilst picking at her food.
'I'm... I'm sorry,' Mary replied, her head drooping to the floor.
'Please, don't. I should never have expected you to sacrifice so much for something that you couldn't understand.'
'But I did understand! I knew it was wrong, But... but... I was scared.' Mary's eyes began to well up with tears.
'It's ok Mary, I can't say I understand your actions, or anyone else's, but it's ok. You've been a good friend.'
As Carolyn covered each corner of the house with her eyes, she could see that there were none of the trinkets Mary had always dreamed of owning. The place was neat and tidy, but lacked any form of beauty to match its owner. Carolyn couldn't help but wonder if after the secret was told, Mary had felt the brunt of her actions. She had no rich parents. She hadn't married a rich man and could only sew and bake to make money. In her letters, Mary had always remained positive about her life, but Carolyn suspected that this was just for her benefit. The one thing Carolyn had hoped through the letters Mary had sent was that her father would welcome her back into his home and declare that he did indeed have two daughters; that her sense of belonging would remain. But the letters would never tell of such hope.
Carolyn and Mary were awoken by a loud banging on the door. Carolyn leapt out of the bed Mary had offered her for the night and, looking out of the window, she saw the sun was just setting on the village, which lit the branches of the trees and created a glowing circle of green and yellow light. She had missed that wonderful sight. But, straightening her dress and her hair, she had no time to gaze. She opened the door to the bedroom ajar. Mary opened her front door with a frightened expression. Then Aunt Isobel walked in. She was shown to the sitting room. Carolyn felt frozen to the spot once again as Mary entered the bedroom.
'Carolyn, please don't look shocked. She assures me she means you no harm.'
Carolyn walked reluctantly towards her Aunt.
'Please, sit down,' Mary announced, gesturing towards the old wooden rocking chair. Carolyn now faced her Aunt, her heart beating double speed.
'Those boys,' Aunt Isobel began, clearing her throat. 'I would look on them every day, against your father's wishes.'
Carolyn was surprised at this statement, but could think of nothing to say in return, giving Aunt Isobel cause to continue.
'He would give them just one small meal a day, but I would bake them bread and take them biscuits.' Aunt Isobel smiled from the corner of her mouth as she looked across at Carolyn.
'Well, Aunt Isobel, that really is very amicable of you. But why didn't you end their ordeal?' Questions Carolyn had longed to ask her Aunt now felt easier to broach.
'Your father is a very persuasive and powerful man Carolyn. You know that,' she spoke with compassion.
It had been hard to accept the truth for Carolyn. She had always looked up to her father, and after her mother had died when she was just a child, he had supported her and Rose as best he could, she always felt. He was indeed a short-tempered man who held a strong presence. He had become a good businessman and a rich man from everything he had earned. But Carolyn had learnt the consequences of crossing her father. Although she could not forgive him of what he had done by bringing slave labour to the village, she dearly wanted him to accept that her actions were not done to hurt him. That he should see the error of his ways.
'I do not wish to cause any more hurt, I just want to see my sister.'
'And that you may,' Aunt Isobel replied.
Carolyn was taken aback at her Aunt's co-operation, but accepted the gesture.
As the sun began to rise from behind the hills, the oast house came into view. This time Carolyn approached with a feeling of optimism in her heart as she walked through the paths lined with golden leaves that crunched beneath her feet. Mary had insisted on joining Carolyn in her quest to be reunited with her younger sister. On entering the house, Carolyn instantly recognised the sweet smell of the oak beams which were positioned in every corner. The floorboards creaked just as poetically as they had done when she would play there as a child, making tunes in every room. Yet the house lacked the splendour it once held, the pride that was always apparent upon entering what once was the finest house in the village.
Carolyn was taken upstairs to the bedroom where Rose was kept. But at the point of entering the room, Carolyn was overcome with a sense of dread. There was no sign of Rose. The room was dark and cold. Carolyn felt a sharp shove to her right shoulder and, as she stumbled onto the bed, she was just able to reach her hands out to soften her fall. She turned to see the same hostile glare that Aunt Isobel had greeted her with that morning.
'Such a foolish girl!' exclaimed Aunt Isobel.
Carolyn turned sharply to Mary who stood behind her Aunt. She did not look up, nor offer any aid.
Just then, Rose appeared from behind the door. She stood, emotionless, staring at Carolyn hunched on the bed. She showed no signs of remorse and promptly left the room. 'ROSE!' screamed Carolyn. But Rose did not return. Carolyn had been tricked, but not only by Aunt Isobel, by her best friend and her own sister. But why?
'YOU have left us with NOTHING,' screeched Aunt Isobel. 'Your righteousness is your downfall. You have turned against your own people to save a few boys who knew no better life. Now we must take back what is rightly ours.'
'But I have nothing to give,' Carolyn replied desperately.
'Oh but your life insurance will see us well for a long time. Your sister Rose will inherit your riches after you are gone.'
'But my father, he will not let this happen,' Carolyn cried.
'Your father! Your father has also been foolish. Tell her, Mary.'
Carolyn, now unable to stand through the weakness in her body, looked across to Mary, who stepped forward. She looked pale and penitent.
'Your father and I, we are married.' Mary spoke quietly and unable still to look Carolyn in her eyes.
'You can't be.'
'I had nothing Carolyn. You... you ruined my life. I lived such an unhappy life since you left. Your father was able to give me the money I needed.'
'So aren't you happy now, with him as your husband?'
'He has given me some riches, but he is a bad-tempered man.' Mary now looked up at Carolyn with malice in her eyes.
'He is being taken care of as we speak. His Will gives Mary everything he has ever owned,' Aunt Isobel cackled with a cruelty only she could deliver. 'You are naïve to believe you alone can change the world,' Aunt Isobel said as she bent down to Carolyn, with a fierce breath. 'You may be honourable but you are alone. Only money can bring happiness to this village.'
At that moment, the sharp pain entered Carolyn's chest like a thousand pins piercing her skin. Through the blackness, she could see the trees, which once offered her comfort, hold out their branches. As she was laid under the golden leaves which lined the paths, her father was placed beside her, together once more.
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