Authors: Helen Forrester
To Stephen and Lauren, with love
The cenotaph stood on its great concrete plinth at the top of Grange Hill. To reach it meant a long climb for aged veterans and decrepit widows. Nevertheless, in this fiftieth anniversary year, a larger number than usual had turned out for the Remembrance Day service. Now the last wreath had been laid, and the parade had been formed up and was marching slowly down to the village.
As the voices faded away, Celia sat in her wheelchair, waiting with Rosemary, her West Indian carer, and her godson, Flight Lieutenant Timothy George Woodcock, DFC, until the narrow path down to the road was clear of people, and the wheelchair could be manoeuvred down.
Coming straight off the distant snow-topped mountains of North Wales and the estuary of the River Dee, the wind was cold, and, despite the blanket Rosemary had tucked round her, Celia was shivering.
She did not weep. Crying never helped anybody, she would say tartly. She had, however, a keen sense of inward loneliness, and she remembered suddenly her sister, Edna, friend and partner in so much of her life – ever since 1920.
What a year that had been. A year of final realisation that the men killed in the First World War would never come back, and neither would the safe, predictable life of 1914. Millions of ignorant, untrained women had had to remake their lives and find work to maintain themselves. I was one of them, considered Celia, as she sat patiently in her wheelchair and looked out across the misty
landscape of the Wirral. And I suppose that, in some ways, I was lucky.
She was, she knew, the oldest person to attend the service, one hundred years next week; and she was probably the only person in the district with truly clear memories of the First World War, of life before it began and of its aftermath.
Her luck had not held. The names of five members of her family were listed on the cenotaph, and every year she made the effort to come to lay a family wreath, gorgeous with huge plastic poppies and black satin ribbons, at the foot of the memorial. From the wreath dangled an old-fashioned black-edged card, which said,
IN TENDER MEMORY OF MY SONS
PAUL AND BERTRAM TREMAINE
KILLED IN ACTION IN WORLD WAR II
AND OF MY GRANDSONS
MICHAEL AND DAVID TREMAINE
LIKEWISE KILLED IN ACTION IN THE FALKLANDS WAR
As they waited, Timothy George also felt the cold and longed for a warm fire and a whisky and soda. A pity Bertram’s wife could not be here, he thought; but, after her sons, Michael and David, had been killed, there was nothing to keep her in the Wirral, and she had gone south to live with her own mother in Devon.
Celia had remained, alone, in the red-brick Edwardian house which she and Alec had bought on their marriage.
It was strange to realise, Timothy ruminated, that, to most of the parishioners, both the First and the Second World Wars were forgotten wars, forgotten sacrifices. Except in special anniversary years such as this one, the crowds around the cenotaph grew smaller each year.
The flight lieutenant sighed. He supposed that Celia and he were, by now, simply walking history, not that Celia could walk very far; she was quite frail. This would probably
be the last Poppy Day for her – and probably the last for many of the men like himself, some in uniform and some in shabby macintoshes, all with glittering collections of medals pinned to their breasts – and for the pitiful little bunch of widows and elderly spinsters, each with a red poppy in her buttonhole.
As he had glanced at the huddled old women, he had felt uneasily that even today there were some elderly women who were still not very good at managing life alone.
Their husbands, sons and lovers had died in the Second World War. Theirs was the second generation of women to be widowed by war or left without hope of marriage.
His own brother’s name and also the names of Celia’s brothers were on the Roll of Honour in the glass case on the cenotaph in Liverpool Cathedral. His brother, Eric, had been shot down by a sniper in Normandy during the Second World War, leaving a pregnant wife. His little nephew, he considered, had been fortunate to have been brought up by a kindly stepfather, considerably younger than his mother.
The wars had created a dreadful double generation gap, he thought grimly, and judging by the mismanagement in the country, the gap had not yet been closed.
He had for years held the notion that nobody had been able to fill the empty spaces left by the fathers and grandfathers who had died – or had been so wounded or exhausted that they were too weary to do anything much, once they had returned to civilian life. He remembered how tired he had been himself; it had been an enormous effort to start again after he had been demobbed.
Rosemary shook his arm, and said, ‘I think we can go down now.’
He jumped, and then grinned agreement. In the comparative silence now surrounding them, the cold wind whined and the artificial foliage of the wreaths rustled faintly in reply, like distant voices calling.
Before they moved her, Celia turned to glance once more at the wreaths and then upwards to the bronze soldier in battledress who stared out over the sands of the estuary.
She remembered three little boys who had built a sand castle on the seashore, and how they had squabbled about who should place a paper Union Jack on its summit. She felt a sudden terrible pain go through her. Years later, they had followed that Union Jack and had gone gaily off to war and never come back. And in the Falklands War her two grandsons had done the same, for reasons that she could never understand.
‘Goodbye, my dears,’ she whispered, as the wheelchair began to move. ‘See you soon.’
She took out a paper handkerchief and firmly blew her nose. One must never give in. Edna and I certainly never did.
Was it really as small as that? Had that weed-covered quarter-acre ever held a formal flower garden, a lawn at the side of the house and a vegetable garden?
Louise Gilmore glanced up in despair at the house itself, one of a semi-detached pair. Sharp shards of glass stood upright in the frame of the broken hall bedroom window. She remembered how Gracie, her father’s housemaid, used to shake her dust mop out of that window – regardless of who might be standing below on the front step. When the family came to spend their holidays in the house, one of the maids had always come with them; it was usually Gracie, who hated the isolation of the place, the steady boom of waves on the sea wall, and the sand which constantly sifted in from the surrounding dunes.
Now, Louise noted hopelessly, damp brick beneath the windowsill indicated that rain had soaked into the wall. The front sitting-room window had had a piece of board nailed over it, and the front door had lost most of its shiny black enamel; what remained was bubbled from the heat of many summers.
There was no garden gate. Only the wooden gateposts remained, and the encroaching front hedge had nearly obliterated them, too.
As a result of the death of her husband the previous Saturday, Louise had been terrified by the dire warnings of his executor, Cousin Albert, and of his lawyer, Mr Barnett. She had, they said, been left almost destitute and
must, in order to raise some money on which to live, sell their beautiful Liverpool mansion immediately.
It was essential that she find speedily some other place to live in, so she had, that morning – only the day after her husband’s funeral – dragged herself out of her bed and, with her younger daughter, Celia, made the tiring journey by train out to Meols, a small village on the Wirral Peninsula.
They had come to inspect a small – small from her perspective – summer cottage which had been in the family for years and had been rented out for most of the time. Cousin Albert had suggested that it would make a suitable retirement home for her, into which she could move almost at once.
She lifted her mourning veil from her face and flung it back over her black bonnet, then stepped on to the path leading to the front of the house. One of its dull red tiles had heaved and she tripped on it and nearly fell. She shivered, her breath coming in sobbing gulps.
‘Be careful, Mother!’ admonished her twenty-four-year-old spinster daughter, Celia, who was following closely behind her. ‘Hold your dress up. You’ll get it all muddy round the hem.’
Equally as scared as her mother, Celia was more snappish than usual. She herself was clutching her wide-brimmed black hat with one hand and holding down her own ankle-length skirt against the buffeting sea wind. She had sand in one eye and it was running tearfully from the painful irritation. She looked worn out.
Louise’s lips tightened. She did not reply to Celia, as she lifted her black satin dress and petticoat an inch so that they did not draggle in the damp puddles on the dirty path.
Sometimes Celia could be very trying. Wasn’t it enough that, only yesterday, they had stood by the grave of dear Timothy, her husband, who had shared her bed for thirty
years? What was a bit of mud on the hem of one’s skirt compared to losing him?
To add to her misery, Cousin Albert Gilmore, sole executor of her husband’s will, had told her, upon his arrival, that Timothy had left heavy business debts, an announcement which had sent a frightening chill down her back. He had said that to keep up her fashionable home in the village of West Derby on the outskirts of Liverpool on what remained of her dowry would be impossible.
Cousin Albert had been completely heartless, she felt, not to give her some time to mourn, before unloading such cruel facts upon her.
Cousin Albert himself had, at first, not known what to do. He had, on Sunday, been telephoned by Mr Barnett, and he had arrived from his home in Nottingham on Monday. He had gone straight from Lime Street Station to see Mr Barnett in his office, and, warned by him, had gone on to Timothy’s office to interview his chief clerk and to look at his files and account books.
What he had found was a financial disaster, which would, he thought in quiet rage, take him weeks to sort out. He berated himself for ever agreeing to be his cousin’s trustee. He was, therefore, not in a very good temper and, when he arrived at Louise’s house, he was, in addition, rumpled and hungry from his journey.
He had paid off the taxi at the driveway entrance and, carrying his suitcase, had puffed his way up a slight slope round a fine bed of laurel bushes to the imposing front steps. He pulled a huge brass bell handle and fidgeted fretfully until the door was opened by a frightened-looking parlourmaid.
Close behind the maid came Celia, wringing her hands helplessly, and whispering, ‘Oh, Cousin Albert, I’m so glad you’ve come!’
‘Yes, yes, my dear, I’ve come.’
He plonked down his small suitcase, and took off his black bowler hat to reveal a tumble of snow-white curls. He handed the hat to the maid and then peeled off his heavy black overcoat and pushed that on to her, too. He gave Celia a light peck on one cheek, and asked abruptly, ‘Where’s Louise?’
‘And your father?’
‘He’s laid out in the downstairs front sitting room.’ Her voice quivered, and she added with evident anxiety, as she pointed to a closed, white-enamelled door, ‘Mother wanted him buried from home, so I sent for the undertaker in West Derby. The undertaker thought that that room would be most convenient for visitors to come into, so I agreed.’
‘Quite right, child. Quite right. When’s the funeral?’
He looked around the hall. Seeing a door open, he remembered the family breakfast room and made straight for it, hoping to find a fire where he could warm himself. Celia fluttered after him.
‘Tomorrow – at ten o’clock,’ she told him, as he thankfully turned his back to a good coal fire and let the heat flood over him.
He had no feelings about the loss of his cousin, only a sense of irritation. He knew that it would be his duty to deal quickly with the affairs of a pair of tear-sodden women, who must change their way of life immediately. He also knew that he must make sure that grasping creditors could not lay hold on Louise’s own modest assets. Timothy’s clerk had assured him that she had not jointly signed with Timothy anything in connection with the business, which was a relief. At least she had, according to what Timothy had once told him, her dowry in the shape of the rents from six working-class houses in Birkenhead, for what little they were worth, and, in addition, this very fine house.
But he had been a lawyer himself, and he knew from bitter
experience that moneylenders could be quite ruthless and, occasionally, dishonest in their seizing of assets. Like any good Victorian gentleman, he was aware of his duty to any of his family, and nobody was going to strip his cousin’s widow of her assets, if he had anything to do with it.
This rectitude did not prevent his being judged by Celia and her mother as inhumanly abrupt and callous with them, when, the next morning, Louise was persuaded to get up very early and get dressed in order that she might receive the many callers who would come to pay their respects to the dead before the funeral.
On the day of his arrival, since he felt that time was of the essence, she had also had to face, after a late lunch, the sad truths discovered earlier by her husband’s trustee.
‘You will need money from somewhere on which to live,’ he had announced baldly. ‘You will certainly have to sell this Liverpool house, and do it very quickly.’ He sighed when he saw her shocked expression, but went on firmly, ‘Whatever you get for it can be invested in an annuity to give you a modest income on which to live.’
Albert had gazed reflectively at the lovely embossed ceiling of her large upstairs drawing room, normally used only for big parties, and added, ‘It’s a valuable property in a good district – so close to the countryside – so it should fetch a good price.’
In his opinion, it was little less than a miracle that Timothy had long ago had enough sense to put the house in her name, so that it could never be seized to settle his business debts. Timothy had always taken the most appalling financial chances, he reflected. Of course, he had made a lot of money, though his luck, it seemed, was running out just before he died.
Albert had, therefore, very early the next morning, while Louise dealt with her visitors, been to see an estate agent and arranged for the house to be put on the market immediately; because she owned it, there was no need to wait for
Timothy’s will to be probated before doing this. With the money it fetched, he had decided, he would buy the annuity for her from a reputable insurance company, which should just produce enough to keep her and young Celia in genteel poverty. In the meantime, they would just have to manage on the rental money from her Birkenhead houses – or take a small loan from the bank, which could be repaid from the money received for her home. Though he was not her trustee, he assumed that Louise would expect him, as the only man in the family, to undertake these financial arrangements on her behalf. Women were, in his opinion, quite helpless; he would present his very sensible plans for her future to her and, undoubtedly, she would accept them.
Before Timothy’s sad demise, Louise had had no idea that she bore the burden of owning the Liverpool house, and the information had increased her bewilderment and her terror of being left alone. Timothy had always done everything, as a good husband should; all she had had to do was balance the housekeeping accounts, entertain his guests charmingly and be kind to him in bed.
It had been scant comfort to her when Cousin Albert, when talking to her on his arrival, had warned, ‘My dear, you will probably have to manage without a servant. However, since there will be only you and Celia, a very small house will be quite appropriate, and I am sure you are an excellent housekeeper.’ He had smiled at her with as much benignity as he could muster.
Louise moaned into her black handkerchief. Did he not realise that he was tearing her whole life apart? It was too much to endure.
He had watched her weep for a few moments, and then had leaned forward to pat her hand and remind her, as Mr Barnett, the solicitor, had earlier reminded him, that she also owned a little house, really a cottage, on the other side of the Mersey River. ‘Your father’s summer home – by the sea – in Meols, near Hoylake,’ he had encouraged.
‘When your sister Felicity died, she left it to you. Remember?
‘Mr Barnett tells me that he recollects that it was let for years. I understand, however, from the agent, Mr Billings, whom I phoned today from Mr Barnett’s office, that there is no one living in it at present.’
He heard Celia take a quick intake of breath, and he glanced over to her. Pale-blue eyes stared back at him from a dead-white face. She looked scared to death.
He continued in a more cheerful tone of voice, addressing himself partly towards her. ‘After being let for so long, it will almost certainly require renovation – but that is soon arranged. You’ve probably seen it, Celia?’
‘No, I haven’t,’ she muttered.
He stopped, wishing heartily that he had not been left the unpleasant task of telling these stupid women what they must do; he felt too old and tired to be bothered with them. He went on heavily, ‘When Mr Barnett told me about it, I had thought of selling the cottage on your behalf, instead of this house. But it would not fetch much – I hope, however, that it won’t need too much to make it a very comfortable home for you – and you must have an income from somewhere to live on, which only funds from this big house can provide.’ He reminded himself that, after the funeral the following morning, he should make a quick trip out to Meols to check that the cottage was indeed habitable.
Louise had temporarily forgotten the cottage; she had not seen it since Felicity had died ten years before. Though the day-to-day care of her property was done through Mr Billings, dear Timothy had always kept an eye on it for her, including that which had been settled on her by her father at the signing of her marriage contract. The thought made her weep ever more heavily into her black handkerchief.
Now, as she looked at the cottage, she despaired. What would happen to her in this awful place? How could she bear it? And to add to her distress, her scandalous elder sister, Felicity, did not seem to have done much to keep the building up during her ownership of it. She remembered that, when the property had passed to her, Timothy had insisted on letting it, because, he said, it was too shabby for family use. Perhaps it was the tenants who had left it in such a mess.
How devout churchman Timothy had condemned Felicity’s way of life. He would not hear of Louise having anything more to do with her. All because Felicity had dared to live in the cottage with handsome Colonel Featherstone, a scarred veteran of the Matabele and Boer Wars – without marrying him. As a result, Timothy had always insisted that she might have a bad influence on the children. He had even frowned when Louise bestirred herself enough to say defiantly that she must occasionally write to her only sister, no matter what she had done. And Timothy must have known very well that, if she married a second husband, Felicity would automatically lose the army pension left her by her first husband, dear Angus, killed at Rorke’s Drift during the Zulu Wars. But Timothy had always insisted that shortage of money was no excuse for Sin.
Only her father had understood Felicity, she thought, as she sniffed into her handkerchief. Felicity had died childless, but, sometimes, when her own elder daughter, Edna, had grown up, she had seen in her some of Felicity’s sprightliness and brave defiance of convention.