Authors: Roberta Grieve
ive-year-old Louise Charlton twirled round, giggling excitedly. It seemed strange to be wearing her best Sunday dress and her shiny black patent leather shoes in the middle of the week.
‘Is it a party?’ she asked.
‘It’s a surprise,’ Polly said. ‘The master said to have you all dressed up by the time he gets home.’
Louise’s father had been away for a few days and she’d missed him. When she heard his key in the door she ran down the wide staircase,
abruptly when she saw that he wasn’t alone. She knew the lady with him. She attended St Mark’s Church where her father was a church warden and just lately she’d taken to sitting with them instead of in her usual pew. Perhaps Father had invited her to tea.
Stanley Charlton picked her up and kissed her cheek. ‘How’s my little poppet? Did you miss me?’
Louise nodded and wriggled to get down, pulling at his hand. ‘Cookie’s made a special cake for tea.’
The lady spoke sharply. ‘Well, Stanley, aren’t you going to tell her?’
‘I’m sorry, my love.’ He bent down and took Louise’s hand. ‘This is Dora – your new mother.’
It wasn’t quite the surprise she’d been expecting but Louise’s first thought was that they would be a real family now. She didn’t remember her own mother and much of her upbringing had been left to Bessie Rogers, their cook and housekeeper and Polly, the maid.
Louise stepped forward shyly, a tentative smile lighting her dark brown eyes, a faint flush on her pale face. Dora was plump, with soft waving fair hair. How pretty she was in her silky dress, which perfectly matched eyes the colour of a summer sky. Dora returned the smile and bent down, offering a soft pink cheek for Louise to kiss. The scent of rosewater wafted towards her and she thought Dora looked and smelt just how a mother should. Maybe this was what her real mother had been like.
‘You may call me Mother,’ Dora said, straightening and slipping her hand through her new husband’s arm. She turned to him. ‘Come, dear, you must show me my room.’
When Louise made to follow them up the broad stairs, Dora turned to her. ‘Go and wash your hands, child. Then wait for us in the drawing room. You may join us for tea today – as it’s a special occasion.’
Louise was disappointed, but, anxious to please, she did as she was told. In the drawing room, she perched on the edge of a chair, swinging her legs and savouring the experience of being in the large, high-ceilinged,
room. She usually took her meals in the kitchen with Cookie and Polly. Perhaps her new mother would let her eat in the dining room. And surely, now that Father was married, he’d spend more time at home. A real family, she thought once more, just like her friend Peggy Fryer, who had a mother and father as well as two little brothers. Perhaps she’d have a little brother now, she thought.
The door opened and they came in, holding hands, Father smiling at his new wife, Dora gazing up at him, her cheeks dimpling, her blue eyes sparkling. He bent and kissed her, but she pushed him away playfully. ‘Now, now, Stanley. Not in front of the child.’
She turned to Louise. ‘Don’t stare, child,’ she said. ‘Go and tell Polly to bring the tea in. And don’t run,’ she admonished, as Louise scampered towards the door.
Unused to being spoken to so sharply, she looked back in alarm.
Dora glanced quickly at Father before saying in a softer tone, ‘It’s not ladylike, dear. Now, run along.’
Louise’s hopes of real family life didn’t materialize. That remained a pleasant fantasy. It wasn’t that her stepmother was unkind, more
. And Dora had her own ideas on the upbringing of children. Stanley always deferred to her and Louise learned that it was useless to protest when the inevitable response was, ‘Your mother knows best.’
Father never took sides, but she soon realized he would do almost anything to avoid Dora’s tears and complaints about ‘her poor head’.
She wasn’t unhappy, just disappointed that being a ‘real family’ hadn’t lived up to her expectations. The worst thing about it was that she could no longer take refuge in the kitchen as she used to. She longed for those
days when Father used to come in by the back door and, after throwing his hat and coat on a chair, would join them at the big scrubbed table in the centre of the room. Cookie always had something fresh out of the oven – soft floury scones spread with butter and strawberry jam, or little fairy cakes with icing and hundreds and thousands on top.
Now, the kitchen was strictly out of bounds. Father had to use the front door and hand his hat and coat to Polly. Then, he had to join Dora in the drawing room. Sometimes Louise was allowed to sit and take tea with them but more often than not she was sent upstairs to have tea in the nursery. How she missed the companionship of Cookie and Polly in the warm
of the kitchen.
When Mother’s delicate condition was first mentioned in her hearing, Louise wondered what it could possibly mean. She didn’t look in the least delicate. In fact she was rosy-cheeked with sparkling eyes. And she was getting fatter too.
‘Is Mother ill?’ Louise asked Polly, when she came to clear away the tea things one day.
Polly looked embarrassed. ‘No – not exactly ill, Miss Louise.’ She piled the things on the tray, pausing at the door with it balanced on her hip. ‘Don’t you worry yourself. She’ll be all right in a few months, you’ll see.’
Louise was slightly reassured, even when Dora took to lying down in the afternoons with a cold flannel over her eyes. And she couldn’t really be sorry that her stepmother spent so much time in her room. It meant she herself wasn’t under so much pressure to conform to the strict ladylike behaviour that was expected of her.
And the best thing about Mother’s illness was that she had Father all to herself on their Sunday afternoon walks, although they were somewhat marred by a slight feeling of guilt. As she skipped along the promenade, holding Father’s hand, Louise wondered if it was wrong to feel so happy when Mother was lying at home in a darkened room in such obvious discomfort.
ouise was twenty-two when Sarah won the talent competition. She wasn’t jealous – not much anyway. Hadn’t Dora always impressed on her how much prettier and more talented her half-sister was?
I’m pleased for her – really I am, she told herself, as the petite
sixteen-year-old girl, her violet eyes shining, took her bow with all the assurance of a seasoned performer. She might have been at the Royal Opera House rather than the Winter Gardens in a small seaside town.
Louise loved her sister dearly. It wasn’t Sarah’s fault that
was so plain and awkward. With an inward sigh, she joined in the storm of applause.
Her father squeezed her arm. ‘I told you she’d do it.’ His eyes were moist with pride.
Louise told herself once more that she wasn’t really jealous. Stanley Charlton loved both his daughters. It was just that Sarah seemed to have that little extra something that drew people to her, casting her older sister in the shade.
She smiled back at her father, returning the pressure of his hand on her arm as the MC urged Sarah forward for an encore. And as her sister took a deep breath and the first clear notes of
The Wings of a Dove
soared towards the roof of the Winter Gardens Theatre, she realized that Sarah was a true star.
‘What a pity Dora was too ill to come tonight,’ Stanley whispered.
Louise’s smile faded, replaced by a tightening of the lips and a flicker of anger. Trust her stepmother to spoil things. If I had a daughter half as pretty and talented as Sarah, Louise thought, I’d give her every encouragement – be there to share her triumphs, comfort her if things went wrong.
As Sarah, hands clasped in front of her, head tilted to one side, sang her heart out, the magic of the music was lost on Louise. Her thoughts were on Dora Charlton, Father’s pretty, spoilt wife, a woman so determined to be the centre of attention that she would disappoint her own child by feigning illness. And Louise was quite sure by now that Dora’s ill health was largely a figment of her imagination. She had a feeling that Dr Tate thought so too. His nephew certainly did.
Andrew Tate had acted as locum for his uncle the previous autumn when the old doctor had been ill with bronchitis. He’d been called to the house several times when Dora had been indulging in one of her frequent bouts of illness – brought on, Louise was now sure, whenever her wishes were thwarted, or when she wasn’t getting the attention she so desperately craved.
Louise bit back a smile as she remembered the conspiratorial look that had passed between them on his last visit. She’d been impressed by the young doctor’s manner. He had dealt with Dora firmly, not indulging her whims, yet managing to appear sympathetic. He had probably been well briefed by his uncle, she thought, with a smile. Old Dr Tate had been dealing with Dora’s tantrums for years.
Since then Andrew Tate had returned to Holton Regis several times. Louise had met him again at church and was looking forward to seeing him when he came to dinner the following week. She told herself it was his skill as a doctor she admired but, as Sarah’s song came to an end, she found her thoughts straying to the way his blue eyes sparkled when he was trying not to laugh, the lock of blond hair he was continually pushing back from his forehead. If only he were sitting beside her now, instead of James Spencer, the son of her father’s business partner, she thought.
A burst of applause brought her back to the present and she joined in enthusiastically. Her father stood up, clapping loudly, his face shining with pride. Thank goodness that, tonight at least, Father had resisted Dora’s attempts to keep him at her side. ‘Sarah will be so disappointed if one of us isn’t there, dear,’ she’d heard him say gently. ‘Besides, there’s nothing I can do if I stay. You’ll be asleep soon, now that you’ve taken your pills.’
‘But suppose I wake up. I hate being alone,’ Dora pleaded, her blue eyes bright with the hint of tears.
‘You won’t be alone. Polly will be here,’ Stanley said, and Louise had silently applauded the hint of hardness in his voice. It was about time Dora began to realize that the world didn’t revolve around her.
Louise sighed. She really couldn’t see Dora allowing her daughter to pursue the career that would surely open up after this evening’s triumph.
Sarah, she knew, had no such doubts. Her half-sister had always loved to perform, whether it was singing a solo in church, showing off the latest steps she’d learned at dance class or playing the piano, which Stanley, for once overriding his wife’s protests, had installed in the drawing room at Steyne House. But it was singing that had proved to be Sarah’s greatest talent. ‘The voice of an angel’ the staid matrons of St Mark’s had been heard to murmur when the little girl sang the solo at the Christmas carol service.
‘You sing very well, dear,’ Dora had told her countless times. And then she would bring Sarah down to earth. ‘But there are other things in life, you know.’
‘I want to be a famous singer – I’ll keep practising till I’m perfect,’ Sarah declared. ‘I’m going to sing at Covent Garden. I’ll travel all over the world.’
‘You’re much too young to be thinking of that.’ Dora lifted the scented handkerchief to her eyes. ‘I just don’t want you to be hurt, darling,’ she said, with a catch in her voice.
‘So long as I can sing, I’ll do anything. I’ll even play the clubs and variety palaces.’
Dora gave a horrified moan. ‘No daughter of mine …’ she began, her voice becoming lost in strangled sobs.
Sarah was sent to her room and Louise followed, trying to warn her against stating her intentions so openly. ‘If she sees you’re really keen, she’ll find a way to stop you,’ she said.
‘She wouldn’t withdraw me from the competition?’ Sarah asked.
Louise knew her sister was pinning all her hopes on the talent contest at the Winter Gardens and winning the prize of singing in a concert to be broadcast on the wireless in celebration of the Coronation of the new king, George VI.
‘I wouldn’t put it past her. But don’t worry, if she tries, Father will talk her out of it,’ she said.
And he had. Dora’s revenge was to stay home, pleading illness. But she hadn’t been able to prevent Louise and her father from attending the concert and witnessing Sarah’s triumph.
As they stood up and pushed past the parents and families of the other contestants, Louise wondered how Sarah would cope with the
if their mother now refused to allow her to take up the prize.
As the applause reached a crescendo, Sarah stood for a moment, her hands clasped in front of her. Then she threw out her arms, bending her knee in a curtsy as her dancing mistress had instructed her.
Beyond the footlights the faces of the audience were a pale blur and she strained forward, looking towards the seats that had been reserved for her family. There they were – Father and Louise, standing up, clapping and cheering along with the rest of the crowd. But where was Mother? Surely she hadn’t meant it when she refused to come?
Sarah’s excitement drained away, replaced by bitter disappointment tinged with resentment. Why did she always have to spoil things? But then she remembered that when Mother had one of her headaches she couldn’t bear the slightest sound. Guilt at her selfishness replaced the resentment.
Later, when her father was signing the forms that would allow her to take up her prize, the euphoria returned. She wouldn’t let anything mar the pleasure of this evening.
It was late when they finally left the little office at the back of the concert hall. Father tucked the contract into his inside pocket and patted Sarah’s hand. ‘You mustn’t let this go to your head, sweetheart,’ he said. ‘Remember, we’re only allowing you go to accept this prize as a special treat.’
‘But it’s my chance to be a real singer,’ Sarah insisted, taking his hand and swinging on it as they emerged through the gates of the Winter Gardens on to the promenade.
Father’s business partner William Spencer and his son were waiting for them. Sarah smiled at James, blushing when he complimented her on her performance. He seemed much nicer now than when they’d been at school together. He’d always been teasing her and pulling her plaits. Now that he was almost grown up he was rather good-looking too. She was quite annoyed when Father refused a lift in the Spencers’ Daimler. It would have been fun to sit in the back seat next to him.
As they drove off he turned and blew a kiss. Sarah giggled. ‘Did you see that, Lou? I think he likes me.’
‘Sarah, you’re too young to be thinking about young men. Besides, I thought you were more interested in a career.’
‘I am. Still it’s nice to be admired.’ She ran on ahead, giggling. She wasn’t really interested in James Spencer. He’d just started work in Father’s
and would probably turn out to be one of those dull men whose heads were full of profit and loss – just like her father.
She did a little skip and laughed. She was going to London to sing at the BBC. She’d meet other singers, musicians, actors. It was all going to be such fun. Her ticket away from dull old Holton Regis by the sea.
Louise called out to her. ‘Wait for us,’ and ran to catch up with her.
‘I think it was you James was blowing that kiss at,’ Sarah said with a mischievous smile.
‘Nonsense. I’m far too old for him.’
Sarah didn’t answer. She was probably right. Poor Louise, stuck at home at Mother’s beck and call. What chance did she have to meet anyone? Since young Dr Tate had returned to London the only unmarried men she ever saw were his uncle and the curate.
She linked arms with Louise and her father and they hurried along the seafront. It had got much colder and she could see their breath on the frosty air and hear the waves crashing on the shingle. She wanted to run, anxious to get home and tell her mother of her triumph. But Dora would be in bed by now and besides, she didn’t really care, did she?
As they reached the end of the promenade and crossed the road towards Steyne House, Sarah refused to think about Mother. She was imagining tomorrow in church when she would describe her success in great detail to her friends.
The next day, to her surprise, Mother seemed quite enthusiastic about her win. As she’d anticipated, Dora had been in bed when they arrived home. But the next day at breakfast she kissed Sarah and congratulated her ungrudgingly. For once, there was no reference to her own earlier musical aspirations.
As they got ready for church Dora was more animated than she’d been for weeks. ‘Now dear,’ she said as she brushed a speck of lint off Sarah’s coat and straightened her hat, ‘if any of those snooty old dears at church say anything to you about you entering the contest, you must tell them firmly that singing on the wireless is perfectly respectable.’
Sarah caught Louise’s eye and grinned. Only yesterday Mother had doubted the wisdom of allowing her daughter to take part in the talent contest. She
worry so about what other people thought. And she was very conscious of her position as the wife of one of the town’s most
The service seemed interminable and Sarah thought the Reverend Ayling was rambling even more than usual. Even the hymns couldn’t cheer her up today. For some reason the vicar had chosen dreary dirges to complement his even more dreary sermon.
It was hard not to fidget, especially when her feet were so cold. Thank goodness she was sitting between Father and Louise today and, hopefully, Mother wouldn’t notice her inattention. The heating pipes gave a sudden clank and gurgle, making her jump. She tried not to giggle as in the pew in front of them, Mrs Henley’s shoulders jerked and she knew that the old lady had been dozing through the sermon. Who could blame her? Sarah thought. She felt Louise’s movement beside her and didn’t dare look round. Her sister was probably trying not to laugh as well.
The service came to an end and they filed out, pausing to shake hands with Mr Ayling and exchange greetings with their friends and neighbours. Sarah was looking forward to basking in their admiration. But there was no hanging about today. Yesterday’s spring weather had turned to driving rain and, at Dora’s insistence, Stanley had got the car out for the short drive to church.
Sarah sighed. If the rain didn’t stop they’d have to forego their usual afternoon walk along the seafront. It would be another interminable Sunday of Bible reading, embroidery and polite conversation. She didn’t care about the weather and would much prefer to brave the wind and rain to stride along the beach, climbing over the breakwaters that had recently been installed to stop the silting up of the river mouth.
‘Come along, Sarah.’ Dora’s sharp voice interrupted her thoughts and she scrambled into the back seat with Louise. She didn’t want to upset Mother today. If she stayed in a good mood she might even consent to play the piano while Sarah sang her encore song. The thought cheered her up and she turned to Louise, noting that her sister looked a little downcast.
‘You will come to London with me, won’t you?’ she asked.
‘If Mother can spare me,’ Louise said.
Sarah bit her lip and pouted. It seemed that whenever Louise wanted to do something, Mother found a way of stopping her – usually another bout of illness, which demanded her stepdaughter’s attendance at all times. Poor Louise had no life of her own, she reflected once more – she should be married or at least engaged, as most girls of her age were by now. She had no social life, apart from church functions and a weekly trip to the Picturedrome cinema with her friend Peggy. Even the guests at the dinner parties her mother occasionally held were boring old businessmen or members of the church council.
The car stopped in the front drive of Steyne House and, as Sarah got out, she saw how her half-sister turned to help Dora, offering her arm and holding the umbrella over her. She was so sweet and kind, and when she smiled she was even quite pretty. She deserved to be happy.