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Authors: Grace Thompson

Gull Island

BOOK: Gull Island
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Gull Island

Grace Thompson

about Bernard Stock and when she woke that September morning in 1917, she was reluctant to let the dream go. Rising out of the narrow bed she shared with her sister Freda, she pretended for a luxurious moment that it was Bernard lying beside her, sharing the single pillow, hogging the best part of the coarse blanket and patched sheet. She searched her memory for the remembered scent of him and imagined it filling the air, mingling with her own.

Pretending it was Bernard’s breakfast she would be cooking when she went downstairs helped to throw aside the morning’s sleepiness, made her less sluggish as she reached for her long serge skirt and the blouse that needed a wash but would have to do one more day. As she dressed in the gloom of the curtained room, the dream changed to imaginings and continued.

‘Do you, Barbara Jones, take this man, Bernard Cedric Stock—’ Pity about the Cedric, mind, but it didn’t really matter as long as she became Mrs Bernard Stock ‘—to be your lawful wedded husband?’ Oh, I do, I do, I do!

‘Barbara! How many more times do I have to call you?’ Her mother’s voice came up the staircase and startled her from the dream of her
wedding day. Mrs Jones’s voice was harsh as she tried to show her anger yet keep her voice low enough to avoid disturbing Barbara’s sister Freda.

‘All right, Mam, I’m coming,’ Barbara hissed back irritably, angry at having to leave her daydream.

‘It’s late for work we’ll all be. And there’s me wasting time trying to get you moving! Come down. Now, this minute, I want a word with you, my girl!’

‘All right, Mam. I’m coming as fast as I can!’

Barbara came down slowly and braced herself before entering the kitchen, where her mother was poking the fire to encourage the kettle to boil faster. She was sure to have a telling-off for coming in late last night, and Mam could smell drink at twenty paces.

Barbara was seventeen and already blooming into womanhood. Her small-featured, lightly tanned face usually gave the impression of a lively spirit looking for fun and amusement but today was different. She looked weary, the pale blue eyes had lost their usual sparkle and were red-rimmed. Her hair had a natural sheen that made it far from ordinary and this morning it was in its usual plait but feathered with untidy ends, revealing the fact it had not been freshly combed but had been left overnight and hurriedly smoothed to give a pretence of morning grooming.

She forced a smile to deceive the world as she reached the doorway, paused to brush her hands nervously down her ankle-length skirt and straightened the collar of the white blouse. Pushing open the door, she took a deep breath and smiled across at her mother, who was cutting bread to toast against the now brightly burning fire, her face as red as the coals.

‘Morning, Mam. There’s warm it is and hardly seven o’clock. You going to the munitions factory morning shift or afternoon?’ Nervously she didn’t wait for or expect a reply but went on, ‘Pity for the people in London havin’ bombs dropped on them from aeroplanes. Them Germans are clever, mind, even if some of them are wicked and cruel. Fancy taking bombs up in an aeroplane and dropping them on innocent women and children. Terrible it must be.’ She frowned a little, remembering that Bernard was in London at the very moment, looking for work. She prayed silently for his safety.

She wasn’t at all hungry but she picked up a piece of toast and, spreading it with jam, went on chattering as she took a very small bite. With luck she’d keep Mam from talking until she got through the door. ‘Someone just back from there at the party last night was telling us how frightening it was, with the air raids. Policemen and soldiers in vans, cars and even peddling push-bikes shouting for people to take cover.

‘Carrying placards too, telling people who couldn’t hear what they were saying that there’s an air raid on.
, I’d be screaming in panic for sure, seeing them notices, wouldn’t you? Glad I am not to live up there. Pity ’elp them, isn’t it?’ She hoped that her bright smile and breathless chatter would prevent her mother from giving the usual lecture.

‘Pity ’elp you too, my girl. Wicked you are! Didn’t your father always say so? Didn’t he always say you’d end up bad?’

‘Bad? What d’you mean now, for goodness’ sake? Forgot to lift the ashes last night? Went to bed without shaking the cloth and setting the table for breakfast? Oh, there’s wicked. Don’t know how I’ll face the vicar if he should call!’

‘You can be flippant, Barbara Jones, but being sharp with your tongue won’t get you out of this mess!’ Her mother’s face was so tightly
, the flesh trembled.

‘What mess? I only went to Maggie Field’s party and stayed a bit late.’

‘If that was all you’d done.’

‘Mam, for goodness’ sake tell me what I’ve done that’s upset you so I can say sorry and get to work. Sacked I’ll be if you keep me late.’

‘Sacked you’ll be soon anyway.’

Barbara looked at the rather burnt toast her mother had removed from the long toasting fork. Always a sign that Mam was mad, that was, her burning the toast. She put it on the bread board with the piece she had
begun to eat. She wasn’t hungry – after all those ports and lemons the previous evening it wasn’t surprising that her stomach was a bit

It had been a good party, mind. Well worth the bit of discomfort. Maggie Field had rolled back the coco matting and they’d danced on the bar floor until the dust rose in clouds and they had to stop, breathless, for it to settle. Sixteen of them in a room hardly big enough for six. Dickie Field had played the piano – not well, mind, but loud enough for them to enjoy it anyway. It had been good; such a pity Bernard was in London and had missed it. But it was over and now she had to pay for it by listening to Mam’s lecture. She glanced at her mother, who was standing, arms akimbo, a tea towel across her arm, just glaring at her, her greeny eyes more than usually fierce.

‘All right, Mam, so I had a bit of a drink. So what? Plenty of girls my age do. After all, this is 1917! The war has blown away all old-fashioned
. Women will be voting soon and then you’ll see how the world will change. No more believing men are superior. We’ll show them that women can do anything they can.’ She reached for her navy jacket that was hanging over the back of the rocking chair and pushed away the tea her mother had poured for her. ‘I’ll be a bit late tonight – I’m going to the music hall with friends from the shop.’

‘No, you won’t.’

‘What d’you mean?’ Barbara stared at her mother, sensing for the first time that this was different from the usual telling-off. ‘Mam?’ she queried.

‘So women can do the same as men, can they? Well, let’s see you walk away from an unwanted child the way a man can, shall we? Barbara, you are going to have a baby and don’t pretend to me any more because I’m not stupid! I’ve known this ages and waiting I’ve been, waiting for you to tell me.’

‘What? Don’t talk daft!’ Half in and half out of her jacket, Barbara sank into a chair with shock. ‘How could I be? I’m not married.’ Barbara’s face was drained of colour and she clutched the table for support. ‘Talking nonsense you are.’

‘So you haven’t been up early to run down the garden to be sick in the lavatory? So you haven’t been put off at the thought of an early morning cup of tea?’

‘Port and lemon, that’s why I’ve been sick.’ Her stomach churned as her mother slowly shook her head.

‘Havin’ a baby you are.’

‘But how can I be? I’m not married, so how can it happen?’

‘Doin’ wicked things with boys, that’s how! Now you’d better get to work and be careful not to let anyone else guess. Do as I say and you’ll perhaps be able to keep your job. Tonight, when Freda’s in bed and before your father comes home from the pub, we’ll discuss what you must do. Go now, you stupid, ungrateful girl, before I swipe you!’

Barbara stared in utter disbelief at her mother, then, with a choking cry, she hurried from the house. How could she have a baby inside her? How did it get there and how will it come out? All she could remember about childbirth was her mother’s shouts and screams of pain, and the soothing mutterings of Mrs Block who came to help bring them into the world – and the smallness of the coffins of those who didn’t survive. Will it be like that for me? she wondered. Sickness overcame her again, but this time it was brought on by fear.

When she reached the door of the department store where she worked behind the scenes in the stockroom, she hesitated. She couldn’t go in. She was sweating with the new bout of sickness that had left her shaking and weak. She was caught in a trap she didn’t understand and felt young, utterly alone and very frightened.

She must look awful. If she went in now there would be questions and everyone would get out of her what Mam had just said. But she had to talk to someone; she had to. There must be someone who would tell her how a baby got into her belly. She felt her body. How could something as big as a baby get in there without her knowing? Where was it? Was it scrunched up like an old discarded paper bag? Mam wouldn’t be any use. She’d never be able to explain things calmly and sensibly. Mam always coloured up and snapped angry and brief remarks about how stupid she was if she dared to ask an embarrassing question. She and Freda sometimes did it for fun, like when they asked questions about the buttons on men’s trousers and what were brassieres and was it all right to say ‘bum’, if you were talking about tramps in America.

Turning away from the three-storey shop premises, leaning on the warm brick wall for support until her legs regained their strength, she went through the narrow, shabby streets to where Mrs Carey lived. Mrs Carey had nine children – surely she’d be able to tell her how it had happened?

At seventeen, Barbara was as unaware of the facts of life as most of her friends. She knew girls without husbands did have babies and she also knew their children were called bastards and carried the shame of their mother all their lives without even a proper birth certificate. She knew of two girls who were sent away to a special place where they had their babies and came home without them to try and pretend nothing had happened.

But everyone had known. Neighbourhoods didn’t change; generation followed generation living in the same houses with the same neighbours. Everyone knew the histories of everyone else and memories were long. Even old Miss Lizzie Green, who was seventy-five if she was a day, was still referred to as the woman who tried to steal Mrs Glyndwr Thomas’s husband and had a baby girl and shamed her family.


Mrs Carey’s large family lived squashed into two rooms. One room was the kitchen, where all the clothes washing, cooking, meal preparation, family bathing and the thousand other tasks of living were performed. It was also the place where Molly Carey and Henry Carey slept with the youngest of their children. The other room was where the rest of the family slept on mattresses on the floor. This room was divided by a heavy brown curtain between the boys and girls and there was a clout for anyone caught peeping!

From these small rooms, Henry Carey ran a newspaper delivery service and Molly Carey managed to do washing and ironing for other people to earn a few extra shillings. She also looked after other people’s children when asked, and was never certain how many should be there at any given time.

When Barbara arrived, Richard Carey, who was almost five years old, was minding his one-year-old sister, Blodwen, bouncing homemade toys on his head and making her smile. Richard had a baked potato in one hand from which he took occasional bites, his face and hand covered with black from the burnt skin.

‘Mam’s next door if you want her. Will you mind the baby first, while I go to the
ty bach
?’ That was the ‘little house’, the local name for the
at the bottom of the garden. Mrs Carey had heard the visitor arrive and she came in with a surprised look on her tired face.

‘No work today then? Never been sacked, have you? Don’t worry, plenty of work with this ol’ war on, that’s one good thing to be said for it. Women can get a job without much trouble. Better paid than laundry and scrubbing floors too.’

‘I took the day off but don’t tell our mam. I – I wondered if I could talk about something. I have a little problem, see.’

‘I think I can guess what that’ll be about,
. Only one little problem comes to a girl your age. Been doing something naughty with boys, have you?’ She moved swiftly and pushed open the door of the kitchen. ‘Clear off, Richard. Nosy-parkering’ll do you no good at all! At school you should be, mind. Behave or I’ll send you this afternoon.’ She tutted extravagantly and smiled at Barbara. ‘I kept him home to mind his sister. Best we go out in the yard, the only place where there’s a bit of privacy.’

The September day had begun with a misty chill that had cleared to become a bright and mild day. The Careys’ garden, a share of a long narrow plot behind six houses, was still untidy with neglected weeds from which struggled the last of the year’s crops. The stumps of Brussels sprouts stood in irregular rows like knobbly-kneed dancers, there were a few
cabbages and leeks, and under the oak trees that all but filled the lower half of the garden newly fallen leaves were spread like an intricately patterned carpet. A corner held a pile of carelessly thrown weeds and kitchen waste intended to be compost, if Henry Carey ever got around to dealing with it.

It was warm and peaceful, the sounds of the street barely penetrating to where they sat beneath the oak tree. After explaining her difficulties, Barbara listened wide-eyed and alarmed while Mrs Carey told her the facts of life, at least, as much as she knew. The gaps in her knowledge they filled between them with guesses and imagination.

An hour later, a dazed, confused and frightened Barbara Jones walked out of the Careys’ house and began to walk away from the streets, the familiar and very small area that encompassed her world. She allowed her feet to take her unthinkingly to the beach two miles away, instinctively heading towards the place where she and Bernard often spent their Sunday afternoons.

BOOK: Gull Island
9.87Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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