Authors: Victoria Hendry
My mother said I was like jam in a bad year, sweet but with too many pips, and when I asked her what she meant, she said that some of the things I said got stuck in people’s teeth and worried them. I didn’t think that was a kind thing to say, so when Jeff asked me to marry him I said yes. Once I was a fine Edinburgh lady I wouldn’t need to think about the things Mother said, or chickens and sheep and muck. After the
, when she saw the size of our braw flat in Morningside, she said there was no limit to the doors a bonny face would open. I didn’t expect to miss her when she left for the farm, but I did. I was seventeen and it was 1942.
Jeff was good-looking, and my aunties said he was a catch, tall like my brothers but a bit of a skinny-malinkie, and he had a sort of dreamy look in his eyes that made them dark when really they were blue. It made me feel funny inside when he looked straight at me, and when he carried me over the
after the wedding, he said he was the happiest man alive. I was happy, too, despite the war. Germany seemed very far away and I thought Hitler wouldn’t be interested in a wee place like Scotland. Jeff used to have a German neighbour called Professor Schramml but he moved out just before the fighting started and went to Geneva or somewhere. They used to walk to the university together in the morning and have a blether.
It was lonely Monday to Friday when Jeff went to give his lectures, or write his book, or whatever it was he did at work. He said he was saving the Scots language for future generations. He had come to Galloway to collect words but collected me instead, saying it saved him searching all over the country when all the old words could be found right on the tip of my tongue.
I tried to keep the house spick and span. There were no beasts needing feeding, or coos to milk, so I hoovered the flat every day, although I was afraid the dust bag would explode, the fabric swelled up so tight. I did one other big chore, too: beat the rugs, or cleaned the bathroom, and that kept it all nice. Once a week we took it in turns to clean the common stair. It was a gloomy place in our tenement with spiral steps and black railings. The sun never reached all the way down from the skylight and I missed the fresh air blowing across the fields. Once I walked up to the top but there was nothing there, just another two landings the same as ours. I asked my neighbour Mrs MacDougall why we couldn’t pay someone to clean it, and she looked at me in yon thrawn way she has and said perhaps I hadn’t noticed that there was a war on, and not everyone had a husband bringing in a good wage. She said we all had to pull our weight. Then she flicked a glance at my stomach to see if I was expecting, and kind of sniffed as if to say, ‘I didn’t think so’. What she said was it would be nice to have some bairns about the stair again. That was when I started leaving the stour under her mat, just to annoy her.
I was cooking herring with orange sauce from my
book when Jeff got back from work. He crept up behind me and put his arms round my waist. I screamed because I hadn’t heard him come in, but his Old Spice aftershave smelt so good that I leant against him, feeling how strong and cosy he was. ‘How is my girl?’ he asked. ‘Pip, Pip?’
His pet name always took the sting out of what Mother had said, and made me laugh.
He was tired after his day at the university, and put his feet up on the range while I finished cooking. For once, he didn’t
complain about the smell. I never really paid much mind to the things he read out of
, but when he shouted, ‘Hell’s teeth, Hitler has invaded Egypt,’ it was so unexpected it made me jump half out of my skin. I told him I didn’t really care. I was getting tired of the war and ration cards. I didn’t like seeing the Anderson shelter in the back garden and I told him I wasn’t gaun in any hole with Mrs MacDougall, even if the Luftwaffe were right overhead. He said I should care because the Germans were in Norway, too, and that was just across the North Sea.
‘You can coorie up wi’ her, then,’ I said, ‘and I will stay here and finish your best malt so it doesn’t fall into the hands of the Germans.’
He said I wouldn’t dare, and I told him it was for the war effort, so he had better get used to the idea of real sacrifice.
As a treat that night, we went to the Dominion Cinema on Newbattle Terrace to see a Betty Grable film. He put his arm round me as we walked. It was five minutes away; a grand, white building with wide steps and a balcony on the front. I was enjoying myself until the programme started, when the newsreel showed Hitler’s armies marching through the streets of Berlin. They were all pressed together in tight rows like the letters in Jeff’s paper. Jeff took my hand but I couldn’t
on the film because I felt scared and couldn’t help
that if a bomb fell on the cinema, we wouldn’t be able to get out over all the seats. There was an injured soldier sitting a few rows in front of us with a bandaged head, but it kept
on his shoulder and his wife propped a jumper round his neck so he could keep upright. She was no older than me.
On the way home I asked Jeff if he had thought about signing up to fight, but he said he had more important work to do and I wasn’t to ask him that again. I told him I only brought it up because I had seen the men enlisting at the Assembly Rooms in George Street, but he dropped my hand and told me to haud my wheesht. He walked ahead of me all the way home and I had to run to keep up with him because I didn’t like the
auld trees in the park at night. The sound of my heels tapping on the pavement echoed on the walls of the blacked-out flats, but he never looked round once and said he didn’t want any cocoa when we got in. The cauld air got in between us under the quilt when he came to bed, but I didn’t say anything.
I woke up before him in the morning. I was always an early bird, and I liked to look at him when he was dreaming. I would pull back the curls of his brown hair, which was almost black, and lean as close as I could to the hollow in his neck to smell the sweetness of him without waking him. He was brown from playing golf, my sleeping man. He kissed me when I opened the blinds to let the sun in, and the light seemed to cheer him up. I think, looking back, that perhaps it was the last time things were right between us.
I took extra care getting dressed, just to please him, and I picked out my navy blue, polka-dot dress. He smacked my
on his way past to the bathroom to shave, and said, ‘How about it, Dotty?’ but I said a real academic would have his mind on higher things, and picked up my basket to go to the butcher’s.
It was bright outside and the milkman let me pat his horse as he went past on his round. He swore the wee soul went mair slowly up our street looking for me. Flash reminded me of my dad’s horses and I gave him a sugar lump, although I did keep most of the ration for Jeff, who hadn’t noticed I had stopped taking sugar in my tea. I liked the feel of Flash’s soft lips on my hand. There was pink blossom flying in the air as I doddled along Canaan Lane for my messages. The old houses stood behind stone walls with crumbly mortar, twisted
shrubs hanging over them, full of flowers. I picked a piece of honeysuckle for my hair and the smell reminded me of our honeymoon. At the end of the lane, Morningside Road was like a canyon with sandstone tenements on either side. We were registered halfway up the hill, at Black’s the Butchers, for beef dripping and meat. His sign read, ‘Purveyors of Finest Quality’, but he didn’t have much in his window. There was a new, handwritten notice pinned to his door saying to
to send something nice to our brave boys.
‘Good morning, Mr Black,’ I said when I went in, but he didn’t reply, which was not like him. One of the women in the queue whispered that Mr Black’s son had been injured at the Front and was in hospital in England. ‘They’re not sure if he’ll walk again,’ she added. Mr Black looked up when he heard that and said it was time for all the men to get a hand to the wheel and get us out of this mess. He was staring straight at me. I think he knew Jeff hadn’t signed up, so I said, ‘I agree with you, Mr Black.’ Everyone’s head swivelled round to look at me and they stopped talking. Then the woman from the hairdresser’s said, ‘Perhaps you could give that husband of yours a nudge, eh, Mrs McCaffrey?’
I said my man was doing very important work at the
, collecting words for a Scottish dictionary, but Mr Black said, ‘Well, it will be a German dictionary if he doesn’t get his finger out.’
They all laughed and I felt my cheeks go beetroot. I could have shrivelled up and died, but it was my turn to be served. He gave me an older bit of bacon than the rest of the ladies and it seemed a bit less than the usual ration, as if he had kept his finger on the scale when he was weighing it. Just thinking about it made me cry on the way home, although I tried not to show it in case someone I knew passed me and told Jeff they had seen me greetin’ in the street like a bairn.
The door to the stair felt heavier than usual. It banged shut with such a thump that Mrs MacDougall opened her door as I passed and asked in her snippy, wee voice if I could please keep
the noise down. Our hall was no brighter than the stair. Wool rugs that Jeff’s dad had bought in Persia were laid on the black, painted floors to cheer them up, but I could hardly make out the birds and flowers in the patterns he claimed were so rare.
As I took off my hat, I noticed there was a letter on the mat. It was in a brown envelope with a black crown printed on it and I put it on the silver tray on the dresser, just the way Jeff liked. He shouted, ‘Where’s my Pip?’ when he got in that night and I ran into the hall to tell him about my trip to the butcher’s. It had been going round in my head all day, like a dog chasing its tail, but before I could hug him, Jeff picked up the letter and took it into his study. I heard him open it and the sound of the paper tearing under the knife seemed very loud. Through the open door I could see him rubbing his eyes, and when I asked if everything was all right, he said it was fine and could I please put the kettle on.
He looked a bit wabbit when he came into the kitchen and he pushed away his new copy of the
, which I had put out beside his tea, thinking it would cheer him up. Although I never dared say, I thought the subscription was too much. He got out his bottle of Talisker and poured himself a dram, saying, ‘Time for a little of the strong stuff.’ He poured me a glass, too. ‘Agnes,’ he said, and I knew it was serious because he usually called me Pip, ‘Douglas Grant is coming tomorrow. We will have some important matters to discuss.’
And that was the first time I heard his name. It didn’t mean anything to me then. I asked Jeff if he would be staying for tea because I wasn’t sure what I could feed him. I had dug over part of the back garden, and put in some early cropping tatties, but they weren’t ready just yet. Jeff said a scone would do, and then he took his whisky into his study and shut the door. He called it his ‘sanctuary’ and insisted he would clean it, but he never did. I put on the wireless in the drawing room, but it was all about the war and some German plane which had come down in the Pentlands, so I put it off and darned some of Jeff’s socks instead. I didn’t want to think about men falling from the sky.