Authors: Peggy Savage
my sipped her tea, looking out of the kitchen window on to the garden. The sun was shining – a beautiful summer’s morning. The borders were bright, sparkling with flowers, roses and geraniums and marigolds, all tumbled together. All flowers were welcome, apart, perhaps, from red poppies – she did not want those memories. Mr Hodge was already out there on his knees, attacking the weeds. A long branch of the old cherry tree was propped up on a crutch like some sprightly old man, full of life, but shaky in the limb. It reminded her, fondly, of her father. The garden and the sunshine and the rainbow of colours should have calmed her, soothed her, but she couldn’t blot out the prowling beasts of worry that roamed and threatened at the edges of her mind.
The children’s swing was still there, even though they were more or less grown up now. She hadn’t the heart to take it down. Sometimes she sat on it herself, lazily swinging, just being. It was part of the tranquil years that had gone by, a tranquillity that she had imagined would always last.
Mrs Parks, duster in hand, looked in around the door. ‘Do you want anything, Doctor, or shall I get on with the rooms?’
Amy straightened up and smiled. ‘No thanks, Edith. I’m fine. Just having a cup of tea.’
Mrs Parks disappeared and the comfortable sound of the Hoover came from the sitting room.
Amy turned back to the window. How long had they been here? It must be nearly twenty years now. Holland Park had been a good choice, a large, pleasant house with a garden where the children could
play, and an easy journey to central London so that Dan could get to work. A haven. It had almost blotted out those years of horror and despair. She smiled, a wry, humourless smile. What idiot had thought of calling it the ‘Great War’? Wrong word. It wasn’t great – it was hideous, foul, inhuman. There were many words to describe it, but not ‘great’. She assumed that description had been coined by some politician who had never seen any part of it for himself.
They didn’t talk much about the war, she and Dan. Nothing that anyone could say could take those horrors away. But through the years Dan had always been there, always known when the memories were thrusting up like the rotting, twisted, blasted trees of wartime France, or when the dreams were bad. He would hold her close, soothing and calming. The quiet house, the soft streetlights, the occasional passing car, were all that the night held now. Those fears and dreams had retreated, almost gone, until now. Now her defences were crumbling, the dreams returning. Surely, surely to God, no one would be mad enough or bad enough to do it again. The twins’ birthday was next week. They would be eighteen.
Dan breezed into the kitchen, straightening his tie. ‘Every day,’ he said, ‘I have to practically force my daughter out of the bathroom. What does she do in there?’
‘I don’t know,’ Amy smiled. ‘Girlie things. Shampoos and face creams and goodness knows what.’
‘We’ll have to put another one in,’ he said, ‘sacrifice one of the bedrooms.’
‘It’s only for a few weeks now,’ she said, ‘and they’ll both be gone for a while. It’s going to be very odd without them, isn’t it?’
He kissed her lightly. ‘It might be nice, just us two again.’
She poured him his tea and he sat down at the table and filled a bowl with cornflakes. She handed him the milk. ‘What are we going to do about their birthday?’
‘Can’t think about that now, my love,’ he said. ‘I’ve got to go early. I’ve got a long list this morning, starting with a possible appendix.’ He took a hurried spoonful. ‘But I know the orthopods get a stream of accidents with boys on motorbikes, so if Charlie wants a motorbike, the answer’s no.’
She laughed. ‘I think he’d rather have money. I think they both would. A bit more to spend.’
‘Well, they can’t go mad,’ he said. ‘Paying for their education at the same time is going to stretch things a bit. One of the pleasures of having twins.’
She smiled. A warm smile this time. She knew how he felt about his children.
He crunched more cornflakes. ‘What are you doing today?’
‘Surgery in Notting Hill this morning, and then shopping with Tessa this afternoon. She needs some books – a
for a start – mine’s too tattered to use. We’ll go to Lewis’s. She wants to read up as much as she can before she starts.’
‘Fancy our little girl doing medicine,’ he said. ‘She’s so like you, Amy.’
‘And you. I suppose it’s not surprising if both your parents are doctors.’
‘That doesn’t seem to have influenced our Charlie,’ he said. ‘He doesn’t seem to have any idea what he wants to do.’
‘I know,’ she said. ‘But he’ll find out.’ She suspected that Dan was a little disappointed that Charlie didn’t want to follow him into the profession, though he denied it. ‘He’ll know by the time he’s got his degree.’
He took a swallow of tea and got up. ‘Got to go. I’ll see you tonight.’ He stood close to her and took her chin in his hand. She could see the grey that was starting at his temples and the little lines around his eyes ‘You’ve got to stop worrying,’ he said. ‘Nothing has happened. They’ll sort it out. Neville Chamberlain’s a good man – well intentioned.’
‘Charlie …’ she said, her voice wavering.
‘I know. It’ll be all right.’ He kissed her mouth and left.
She sat down at the table, nursing her cup, though it was cold now. She put her elbows on the table and rubbed her brow. Would it be all right? Dan didn’t voice any fears, but he couldn’t hide anything from her. She knew that he was worried, and that worried her even more. The Prime Minister might be well intentioned, but the whole world seemed to be in a mess and there was Winston Churchill, warning and warning. They were already planning to give gas-masks out to the
and forming an air-raid precaution service. What was that for, if everything was all right?
The twins. Tessa, starting medicine. She had been so thrilled to get in. She is like me, Amy thought, always keen on science, always known what she wanted since she was a small child; Charlie, reading history, both of them going up to Cambridge. They were twins, but they were so different. Tessa seemed so tough, so confident, so sure of herself. Charlie was a bit of a dreamer, quiet and thoughtful. He didn’t say much about his thoughts or his feelings. But there was something there in Charlie, a strength that she recognized and respected. You could only push Charlie so far.
Tessa came into the kitchen, yawning. She was wearing slacks and a blue blouse, her fair hair tied back with what looked to Amy like an elastic band. She saw her mother looking. ‘I think I’ll get it cut short,’ she said. ‘It might dangle into things in the labs.’
Amy smiled. ‘Good idea.’
Tessa sat at the table. ‘Is there any tea?’
‘I’ll put the kettle on,’ Amy said, ‘and make some fresh.’ She filled the kettle and put it on the gas. ‘Where’s Charlie?’
Tessa yawned again. ‘Still asleep, I expect. We got back rather late.’
Amy was well aware of when they had got back, though she would never let them know. Even at their age she still couldn’t sleep properly until they were safely back at home. ‘Good party?’ she asked.
Amy put some tea in the pot and waited for the water, leaning against the kitchen cabinet.
‘There were a lot of army types,’ Tessa said, ‘going on about a war. They carry on as if it were something good, as if they were looking forward to it.’
Amy began to feel as if she couldn’t breathe. ‘It isn’t something good,’ she said, ‘for the winner or the loser.’ She poured the water on the tea, gave it a stir and poured a cup for Tessa. She watched her as she sipped her tea. She was proud of her. It still wasn’t easy for a girl to get into medical school – not as difficult as it had been in her day, but still not easy. There was a lot of competition, and still a lot of prejudice. Amazing, that, considering what women doctors had done in the last war.
‘Can you come this afternoon for the books?’ Tessa asked.
Amy nodded. ‘I’ll meet you at Lewis’s bookshop at two.’ She paused. ‘What were they saying – the army types?’
‘Oh – you know, “We can’t let the Nazis get away with it; Germans at it again; we licked them once and we’ll do it again.” They sounded as if they couldn’t wait.’
Amy turned away so that Tessa couldn’t see her face. Does it never change, she thought? One generation after another. All those boys in the last war marching cheerily off to France, not realizing, not knowing. ‘It won’t happen again,’ she said. ‘No one would be mad enough to do that again.’
‘You never talk about it,’ Tessa said. ‘I don’t know what it was like for you and Dad. Was it absolutely horrible?’
‘It’s best forgotten.’ Amy looked away, fiddling with the teapot lid. It could never be forgotten, but she had been able, for the most part, to bury it. Until now.
Charlie appeared, tousle-headed and sleepy, wearing flannels and a white shirt rolled up at the sleeves. He sat down at the table. Amy poured more tea.
‘You look a bit hung over,’ Amy said.
‘No I’m not,’ he said. ‘I didn’t drink that much.’
‘He got in an argument,’ Tessa said, ‘about the morality of war.’ She gave him a smiling, exasperated glance. ‘He just does it to argue. He doesn’t believe half the things he says.’
‘It’s the fun of the debate,’ he said. ‘It’s an intellectual exercise.’
‘Well, there’s no point in having that particular argument with the army,’ Tessa said, ‘is there?’ She looked at Amy. ‘It got quite heated. They seemed to think he was a conscientious objector or something. He was lucky not to get his block knocked off.’
Charlie grinned. ‘Remind me not to join the army. The drunker they get the more they’re looking for a fight.’
‘I suppose if you train for a war,’ Tessa said, ‘you naturally want one. Otherwise it’s all for nothing.’
‘It won’t happen,’ Amy said sharply. ‘Not again.’
Charlie said nothing – just looked at her over the rim of his cup, a look that she couldn’t interpret. Was it questioning, cynical, resigned?
She didn’t know. For a moment she could only see the little boy, romping in the garden. Sometimes he looked so much like Dan that her heart turned over: tall, dark hair curling a little, his father’s sensitive mouth. ‘I’ve got to go,’ she said. ‘Get your brother something to eat, Tessa. He looks as if he needs it.’
‘I’m not that hung-over,’ he said.
Tessa got up and kissed her mother’s cheek. ‘I’ll see you at Lewis’s, then. Isn’t it all thrilling?’
Amy laughed. ‘I hope you’ll still think so when you’re doing dissection.’
‘Of course I will,’ Tessa sad happily. ‘I got used to it with all those frogs and rats at school. Body parts don’t frighten me.’
Body parts. The words set another beast roaming and threatening. For a few horrified seconds Amy was back in one of the operating theatres in France, among the shattered limbs and appalling injuries, among the body parts thrown away for disposal into the bins. She thrust the thoughts away. She picked up her bag and opened the door. ‘Oh, Tessa – ask Mrs Parks to get some strawberries, will you? We’ll have them for pudding tonight.’
‘And cream,’ Charlie said.
Amy put her bag into her little Austin Ten. She sat in the car for a few moments, trying to forget her worries. There were worries enough where she was going, down to the poorer streets at the end of Ladbroke Grove and the Harrow Road, to a mixture of hard pressed but respectable working-class families and downright slums.
They had hoped and expected, she and Dan, at the end of the war, that those men in the trenches would come home to a better life, better housing and food, better jobs. The slump had put paid to that. ‘A country fit for heroes’, the government had promised. Now the men, even those with jobs, said that you’d have to be a hero to live in it. Times here in London were bad enough, but some industries were still going. What must it be like in other places? She had seen those men from Jarrow, with their shabby clothes and cracked, worn shoes, strained and exhausted as they walked into London, asking only for justice. What was going to happen now? Something worse?
She started the car and drove into Holland Park Avenue, then turned left into Ladbroke Grove. She drove past the large Victorian terraced houses, many of which were tenements now. She was in and out of these houses all the time, visiting her patients. Families lived here in two or three rooms, many with no bathrooms and shared toilets. And there were now so many ageing women, living out their lives alone in one dingy room, their husbands and sons lost and thrown away in unknown graves in the ravaged fields of France.
The surgery waiting room was filling up with women and small children and babies. She knew the heart-breaking battle that many of these women were fighting, to feed and clothe their children, to keep their pride and respectability. Cleanliness wasn’t cheap, or easy, in some of these tenements. Many of the children were wearing worn out plimsolls or shoes that were too big for them, and obvious hand-
. As she walked through the waiting room she noticed that several of the children had impetigo, nasty-looking sores on their faces around their mouths. There must be another outbreak going round.
Nurse Jones was already there, laying out the consulting room, patients’ notes, prescription pad, turning on the sterilizer.
‘Morning, Jean,’ Amy said. ‘We’ve got impetigo again, I see.’
Jean nodded. ‘And nits. You can see some of them from the door.’
Amy sighed. ‘We’ve got some nit combs, haven’t we? And Derbac soap? And Gentian Violet?’
Nora nodded. ‘Yes. I’ll make up some small bottles.’
The purple paint was all that Amy could offer for the infected sores – that and advice about cross infection. Not that that would help much – many of the children slept three or four to a single bed, two at the top and two at the bottom.
She went into her consulting room and laid out her equipment, stethoscope and auriscope and ophthalmoscope. Then she put out the contraceptive jellies and creams and diaphragms. Many of these women were desperate for contraceptive advice, and that still wasn’t easy to come by. Most of them couldn’t afford what they called French letters, or their husbands wouldn’t use them. They had one child after another, year after year, or they risked their lives and went to a
abortionist, risking death from haemorrhage or infection.