Authors: Roberta Grieve
As the van drove deeper into the heart of the East End, familiar landmarks began to appear and Ellie looked out of the window, marking their progress by her childhood memories. She’d been back to London with Alex several times and, of course, she’d visited the Carnaby Street shop where her scarves were sold. But that was a different London.
Now, as she passed the red-brick primary school with its tarmac playground, the bus stop where she and Judith had waited for the grammar school bus each morning, she realized it hadn’t all been bad.
As they reached the corner of Kendall Street, she saw that old Solly’s shop was still boarded up and the whole street had a dingy abandoned look. Old cigarette packets and chip-wrappers whirled in the chill wind, collecting in the doorways of the empty shops.
She turned to Harry in surprise when the van stopped. ‘Mum’s still living here?’
He nodded and leaned across to open the van door. ‘Best if you see her on your own,’ he said, lighting a cigarette. ‘I’ve got a few things to do. I’ll come back later and take you home.’
She got out, pulling the collar of her coat closer around her neck. Of course he had things to do. He had a wife to go home to – a wife who was probably wondering what her husband was up to.
As she turned away and reached the door to the flat, she realized that Harry hadn’t mentioned Gerda or his child.
As Harry drove away, Ellie hesitated before reaching out a tentative hand and pushing the door open. She entered the narrow passage, noting the peeling wallpaper, the patches of damp. Poor Mum never did get her council house, she thought.
The mingled smells of cooking and polish returned her to childhood days when she’d leapt the stairs two at a time, longing to tell Mum something that had happened at school. Now she mounted slowly, her heart beating faster, haunted by other times when she crept indoors, desperate to reach the sanctuary of her attic room.
She caught her breath, willing herself to be calm as she opened the door to the kitchen. Nothing seemed to have changed. A fire still glowed in the old-fashioned range, although a modern cream-painted electric cooker now stood against the wall next to the sink. Bert’s chair still occupied its place near the range. Even the little wooden stool where she had crouched as a child was still in its place by the brass fender.
Tears welled as she gazed round the familiar room. Lost in memories, she jumped when a voice came from the room across the landing.
‘Is that you, Harry? Have you brought my medicine?’
Ellie opened the door quietly. The woman on the bed was pale, thinner than she remembered, the wavy chestnut hair, once so like Ellie’s own, now lank and streaked with grey. She was facing the window, her eyes on a golden shaft of sun which had found its way through the
curtains. At the sound of the door opening, she turned her head. ‘Where have you been, Harry? I expected you back ages ago….’
‘Mum?’ Ellie approached the bed hesitantly.
Mary gasped. ‘Am I dreaming?’
‘No, Mum, it’s really me. Harry found me and brought me home.’ Ellie’s voice choked with tears and she sank to her knees beside the bed. ‘Oh, Mum – if only I’d known you were ill.’
She reached out to clasp Mary’s hand and buried her face in the candlewick bedspread, soaking it with tears, surprised she still had any left to shed. She felt her mother’s hand on her head, stroking her hair and murmuring.
‘No need for “sorries”, love. You’re here – that’s all that matters.’ She struggled upright and took Ellie in her arms. For a long time they clung together, their sobs saying more than words.
At last Ellie drew away, fumbling for a handkerchief. Mary took her hand. ‘Were you really so unhappy, love?’
Perhaps now was the time to explain why she’d really run away. But it would kill her mother to know what Bert had done, especially as she seemed so frail.
Ellie kissed her cheek. ‘It’s all in the past, Mum. I was just a silly kid. Just tell me I’m forgiven, please.’
‘There’s nothing to forgive. I never blamed you – just worried myself sick that something awful had happened to you. But you’ve made a good life for yourself. I couldn’t believe it when I picked up that magazine.’ She patted the side of the bed. ‘I want you to tell me all about it – how you met your husband, and how you started your business, everything.’ She pointed to Ellie’s swollen body. ‘And you’re expecting! I’m going to be a grandma again – and pretty soon, judging by the look of you.’
‘In a couple of months, Mum. Now, that’s enough about me – I want to hear about you – why are you still living here? I thought you were on the council list.’
‘Well, they said we didn’t qualify for a house, only a flat. I didn’t want to go in one of those tower blocks. Your dad didn’t want to move either. Still, we’re going to have to find somewhere soon – the new owner wants us out. The whole street’s coming down to make way for a new parade of shops.’
Ellie wished she could persuade her to move to Essex. But she’d never leave Bert. ‘You’ll find somewhere,’ she said. ‘Now, tell me about the family.’
‘Well, Harry must have told you he was working for Sid until he died.’
‘Yes, but where’s he living now? There was so much to talk about on the way down – I didn’t get round to asking him.’
‘He’s living here, love – didn’t you know?’
Seeing her puzzled look, Mary’s lips tightened. ‘There wasn’t any baby, she just pretended to be pregnant,’ she said.
Anger flared. How could Gerda do such a thing? Ellie could see her mother was upset so she changed the subject, asking about Sheila. Mary’s voice grew stronger as she spoke of her two little granddaughters. Vicky and Debbie were both now at school but visited at weekends and holidays. Sheila was still married to Tommy and, although she spoke disparagingly of her son-in-law and the source of his wealth, Mary seemed to have accepted her daughter’s choice of husband.
‘She seems happy enough – and Tommy absolutely dotes on the girls,’ she said.
Ellie, worried that her mother was getting tired, forced a laugh. ‘I’ve been here ages and not even put the kettle on. But first, here’s a present for you.’ She pulled the silk scarf out of her bag and arranged it tenderly round her mother’s shoulders.
Mary smiled and fingered the soft material. ‘It’s lovely, Ellie,’ she said. ‘Did you really make this yourself?’
‘It’s my latest design,’ Ellie told her.
She turned the scarf round, reading the signature across the corner. ‘
,’ she said. ‘Is that what you call yourself now?’
‘I’m still Ellie, Mum. Helene is sort of like a trademark.’ How could she tell her mother she’d rejected her name when she’d run away, determined to make a new life for herself?
As she laid a tray, Ellie knew that she’d have to ask after her father. She hoped he wouldn’t come home before she’d made the tea and taken it into her mother. Then she’d make her escape.
She helped Mary to sit up and adjusted the pillows behind her. As she handed the cup to her she said as calmly as she could, ‘How’s Dad? Is he working these days?’
‘He’s at the Club.’ Mary glanced towards the door. ‘He won’t be home yet. But I think it’d be best if you weren’t here.’
‘It’s OK – I’ll go soon. Besides, I only came to see you.’
‘He was furious when you ran off. He’ll go mad if he sees you.’
Seeing her mother’s nervousness, eyes constantly flickering towards the door, Ellie found the courage she’d never had before. She had a right to visit her own mother, didn’t she? How many times over the past few years had she convinced herself that Bert could no longer scare her? But since entering the flat the old apprehension had returned and she’d found herself listening for his steps on the stairs with the same dread she’d felt in childhood. Now, her protective instincts towards her mother made her brave.
‘He doesn’t scare me. I’m not a kid any more,’ she said.
Mary nervously smoothed the sheet between her fingers. ‘You know I can’t stand rows and arguments, Ellie. Please – don’t upset him.’
‘It’s OK, Mum. I’ll go soon, but I’ll come again. Maybe you can come and visit me when you’re feeling better.’ She smiled. ‘I want my baby to have a proper family – a grandma and aunts and uncles and cousins.’
‘We were a proper family once upon a time,’ Mary said wistfully.
‘Oh, Mum.’ Ellie hugged her close, unable to voice what was really on her mind. Had Mum forgotten the rows, the money squandered on drink and gambling, the fact that Bert had wanted Harry put in a children’s home? Maybe she was thinking back to an earlier time, before Ellie had been born, when she’d been happily married to Jim Scott.
She sighed. Nothing had changed and, despite her promise to keep in touch, Ellie knew she couldn’t face coming again. Her mother was getting better. Hadn’t she said she would soon be ‘good as new’?
‘I still get tired though. Don’t know what I’d’ve done without Harry. He’s been so good to me,’ she said.
‘You need a holiday, Mum,’ Ellie said. ‘When I’ve had the baby, you must come up to Essex and stay.’
‘We’ll see, love.’ But Mary’s voice was tired.
Ellie noticed the lines of pain etched on the dear face. She had to go – but how could she leave her like this?
The downstairs door slammed and Ellie jumped. She hoped it was only Harry. But she bit her lip as stumbling footsteps and muttered curses told her Dad was home and she knew the fear was still there. The door opened and there he was, swaying slightly, his eyes bloodshot, face flushed with rage and booze, just as it had been the last time she saw him.
As he registered her presence, he glared and raised his clenched fists. ‘So, the whore returns. I’m surprised you dare show your face here after the grief you caused your mother,’ he said.
‘I’ve told her it’s all right, Bert. I’m glad she’s here,’ Mary protested weakly.
Bert’s fist slammed against the doorjamb. ‘It’s not all right. I said I wouldn’t have her in the house and I meant it.’ He looked Ellie up and down, a sneer on his face. ‘Look at ’er, all dolled up in ’er posh clothes – and with a bun in the oven, too. ’Oo does she think she is?’
He paced the room, muttering incoherently. Ellie longed to flee, but she summoned up her courage and faced him. And as she looked him in the eye she wondered how she could ever have been frightened of this pathetic blustering bully.
She spoke calmly. ‘Look, Dad, I don’t blame you for being upset. But I’ve told Mum I’m sorry. And I’m a married woman now, expecting your first grandchild.’
Bert turned to her viciously. ‘That don’t alter the fact that you ran off and left me a laughing stock. You would’ve ’ad it made if yer’d stayed at the club – meeting all sorts, famous film stars and that.’
‘Oh yes. The likes of Philip Devereux, you mean. I’m not a naïve little girl any more, Dad. I know what you had planned for me.’
Bert’s eyes flickered nervously towards his wife, but Mary had her face in her hands. ‘I don’t know what yer talkin’ about,’ he said.
‘Don’t worry, Dad – I won’t say anything. But you know why I ran away.’ She held out a placatory hand. ‘Look, I’m only here because I heard Mum was ill.’ She didn’t say that Harry had brought her home. ‘I’ll go now – but I’ll come back and see her – and you can’t stop me.’
Bert looked at her with loathing. ‘I’m master in my own house – I say who comes and goes.’
Ellie’s lips twisted in a semblance of a smile. ‘I’m not scared any more, Dad. You’re all bluster.’
‘I’ll show you….’ He stepped towards her but a cry from the bed stopped him.
‘Leave her alone. You drove her away once – I won’t let you do it again.’
Bert gave a short laugh. ‘
won’t let me? We’ll see about that.’
Mary started to cry. ‘What’s wrong with you, Bert? Don’t you remember how you doted on her when she was little? How you used to play games with her and call her your little Angel.’
At the mention of the old pet name Ellie felt the rage rise in her throat and she couldn’t stop the words from tumbling out. ‘It was his
that caused all the trouble, Mum. When I didn’t want to play any more, he forced me – and threatened he’d do worse if I ever told. He hurt me, Mum – that’s why I ran away.’
Her mother’s face was chalk-white, her eyes wide with disbelief and a dawning horror as she turned to her husband.
‘Bert, please tell me it’s not true,’ she gasped.
‘Of course it ain’t true. She’ll say anything to justify the way she treated you. She’s just like her sister – always was a little tart, leadin’ blokes on. Look at the way she used to fawn over that so-called brother of hers.’
The pain in her mother’s eyes made Ellie wish she could retract her hasty words. She took a step towards the bed. ‘Mum, I didn’t want you to know. That’s why I stayed away – I couldn’t face you, or him.’
But her mother turned her face away and tears slid down her cheeks. Ellie looked at Bert and saw her own loathing reflected in his eyes. She picked up her handbag and turned towards the door.
‘I’m sorry, Mum – I can’t tell you how sorry.’ Blinded with tears, she stepped on to the landing as her father’s hand shot out and gripped her arm.
‘I told you what I’d do to you,’ he hissed, his face close to hers.
Ellie managed not to flinch. ‘You can’t hurt me any more than I’ve been hurt already,’ she told him, pulling her arm away.
‘Oh, can’t I?’ he said, aiming a vicious punch at her stomach.
Ellie gasped and clutched the newel post. His fist clenched for another blow and all the pent-up rage and humiliation of years exploded as she swung her handbag at his head. The metal clasp caught his temple and he raised a hand in disbelief. Then with a roar of rage he rushed at her. She stepped to one side and watched in horror as he tumbled down, to lie in a crumpled heap at the bottom of the stairs.
Harry signed his name with a flourish, a huge grin on his face. He was now the proud owner of Barnes Garage on the Southend road – owner of a mortgage at least. Now it was up to him to rebuild the business that Sid’s old mate had sadly let go. As he leaned across the desk and shook hands with the solicitor he was confident that hard work and the skills he’d learned in the army would ensure his success. Nobby had faith in him anyway, and had promised to help him get started.
He left the office and rushed out into the street, hurrying through the market, waving to his stallholder friends. Anxious to get home and tell Mary and Ellie, he didn’t stop to chat.
Still grinning he pushed open the side door into the passage. The grin vanished when he caught sight of the still form slumped at the foot of the stairs. Stupid, drunken fool. Served him right, he thought, prodding the body with his foot.
There was a muffled groan and Bert moved. He was still alive then, more’s the pity. Bending down, Harry quickly examined him. There was a cut on his head, the blood already congealing, and one arm was twisted awkwardly beneath him.
Harry supposed he ought to help, but it was tempting to leave him there. With a sigh, he eased Bert into a sitting position. ‘You oughter take more water with it,’ he said with a laugh.
Bert groaned again and opened his eyes. ‘Where is she – the little cow? I’ll teach her—’
Harry gasped. ‘Ellie,’ he shouted. Leaving the injured man propped against the wall, he rushed up the stairs into Mary’s room. ‘Where’s Ellie? If he’s hurt her….’