Authors: Lizzie Lane
Trapped in a marriage to the wrong man ...
Struggling to make ends meet, Mary Anne Randall is offered no help by her drunk and abusive husband. A pawnbroking business run from the wash house at the back of her home is the only way she can hope to keep her three kids fed and clothed.
But, as storm clouds gather over Europe, can Mary Anne break free from her loveless marriage for what might be a last chance at love ...?
Previously published as
Lizzie Lane was born and brought up in South Bristol and has worked in law, the probation service, tourism and as a supporting artiste in such dramas as
, which are both set in Bristol.
She is married with one daughter and currently lives with her husband on a 46-foot sailing yacht, dividing her time between Bath and the Med. Sometimes they mix with the jet set and sometimes they just chill out in a bay with a computer, a warm breeze and a gin and tonic!
A Christmas Wish
It was two weeks following Prime Minister Chamberlain declaring war on Germany that Mary Anne Randall knew for certain she had a little problem.
Her neighbour Biddy Young crossed one knee over the other, puffing and wheezing in an attempt to straighten a stocking seam. ‘Done the hot baths?’
They were sitting in Mary Anne’s washhouse, a brick-built lean-to tacked on to the back wall. The house nestled in a squat terrace built in the nineteenth century and typical of many in the city of Bristol and way beyond. It had a door and a window and a hole in the pan tiles where the stack puffed steam from the boiling washing.
Mary Anne grimaced as Biddy tugged the grimy toe of her stocking through the hole of her peep-toed shoe. Biddy had a tinsel-bright glamour, face powder and lipstick applied after the briefest of washes and stockings worn until the toes were black or the legs laddered beyond repair.
Normally, Mary Anne wouldn’t have taken much notice. Biddy was entertaining and usually made her laugh, but not today; her body was telling her things weren’t quite the same and it worried her.
Fixing her mind on the subject of conversation helped
overcome her queasy stomach. So did looking at the top of Biddy’s peroxide-blonde head rather than her feet.
‘I’ve tried Penny Royal and senna pods, plus half a bottle of gin; I even rode our Lizzie’s bike over the cobbles, but that didn’t work either.’ Wincing at the memory, she rubbed her backside. ‘And I’ve still got the bruises.’
Biddy chortled, her face reddening with the effort of laughing and still trying to straighten her seams.
Even now in the midst of her trouble, Mary Anne touched the moss-covered brickwork with something akin to reverence. The washhouse was far more than somewhere to boil the bed sheets. It was a sign of defiance, of independence. Its damp bricks made her fingers tingle like the high note of a chilly tune.
Biddy pursed her bright red lips. Even when she wasn’t going anywhere, she never forgot her lipstick.
‘Not a good time to get in the pudding club – not with a bloody war looming.’
‘And not at my age,’ added Mary Anne, trying hard not to stare at the bristles lining Biddy’s upper lip. She shook her head in exasperation. ‘It’s just so … so …
Biddy looked at her as though she could well understand why her old man, Henry Randall, had found her hard to resist. Mary Anne hadn’t run to fat like a lot of forty-plus women around, certainly not like Biddy whose belly sat like a blubbery doughnut on her equally flabby thighs. ‘You’re good fer yer age, Mary Anne.’
Mary Anne barely stopped herself turning bright red. The years had been kind. The reflection she saw every day in the mirror had wide-set greyish-green eyes, a neat chin and shoulder-length hair a few shades duskier than the gold of her youth, and a glorious complement to her smooth complexion. Her legs were long, her waist trim and she walked
as though the best years were still ahead of her and ripe for the taking.
Reading the look in Biddy’s eyes, Mary Anne touched the pinpoints of crimson erupting on her cheeks despite her attempts to control them. ‘I didn’t entice him, Biddy. I believe in acting my age, and so should he.’
Biddy mumbled as she placed her pudding of a foot back on the ground. ‘Fat chance you got of getting him to do that. My Alf certainly don’t act ’is age. He’s just a bloody, big kid who thinks he’s Kent Street’s answer to Rudolf Valentino.’
Mary Anne smiled though her thoughts tapped like nervous fingers in her head. Snatches of conversation she’d had when counting out coins into a desperate hand in exchange for a pledged item – a nice piece of china, a clock, even a wedding ring; everyone was desperate at some time or another, some for the same reason as she.
‘I hear there’s a woman in Old Market …’
‘Mrs Riley! Oh, yeah, she’ll get rid of it for you all right, but mind,’ said Biddy, one well-bitten finger held up in warning, ‘she do know how to charge, by Christ if she don’t!’
‘I can pay.’
Biddy sniffed as her gaze wandered around their shabby surroundings. The bare bricks of the washhouse wall were green with moss and mould, natural in a place continually absorbing the steam from a wash load of boiling sheets. Her eyes finally came to rest on the set of cupboard doors set into one wall. They were big and bare of paint, but Biddy knew what was behind them. Mary Anne ran a thriving business – thanks in part to her.
Married to a bloke who put a third of his wages over the bar of the Red Cow didn’t make for an easy life. For years, Mary Anne had scouted round for ways in which to make ends meet. At first she’d bought clothes at jumble sales, washed, pressed
and sold them to needy neighbours in the area. From there it was a skip and a hop to pawnbroking.
The business had started three years ago. Biddy had been in need of money. The pawnbroker – a proper shop complete with the three balls hanging above the door – was shut.
‘I need a shilling for Fred’s tea and “uncle’s” is shut,’ she’d wailed, brandishing a pair of children’s boots. ‘The Sally Army gave ’em to me. They’re almost new.’
Mary Anne had eyed the boots enviously, wishing the Salvation Army had given them to her. Not much chance of that, she thought with a mix of regret and pride. She wasn’t as poor – or as careless – as Biddy, thank God.
Stanley, her youngest, had been without a pair at the time. Her thoughts had turned to the little bit of money inherited from a penny policy her mother had paid into all her life. So far she’d managed to keep the windfall secret from Henry, but had not quite decided what to do with it for the best. Biddy had given her an idea.
‘I’ll give you a shilling against them,’ she’d said after a closer inspection. ‘Your Cyril grown out of them already?’
Biddy had shrugged and held out her hand. ‘He’s used to going without boots.’
Biddy’s youngest was eight years old, smoked butts he picked up from the gutter, and swore almost as much as his father. Alf Young worked on the docks when he could, weighing-on like a lot of men, sometimes working and most days not, depending on whether his face fitted with the foreman. In Mary Anne’s opinion, quite understandable in a way: he had an ugly face. God knows what Biddy had ever seen in him.
he drank too much!
Her own thoughts pulled her up short suddenly.
Well, that’s the pot calling the kettle black!
She’d laughed at the thought and called herself a fool. Who
was she to speak? Look at Henry. Look what he’d turned into, not that he’d always been that way. Their marriage might have been different if she’d kept her mouth shut and the truth to herself, but at the time he’d been overjoyed to have her. The First World War had taken the life of her sweetheart, Edward. Henry had been her parents’ choice and she’d been happy to go along with it at the time, but she’d misjudged him badly. His character had changed after she’d told him she’d given birth to Edward’s child before they were married. The child had been adopted, and she’d explained that Edward had been killed. It was then that he’d seen through her parents’ collusion and felt duped, his pride hurt and his affection for her vanishing overnight.
Adjusting to the new circumstances of their relationship she had doted on her family, making sure they had the best of everything she could give them. Loving them helped compensate for Henry’s shortcomings and eased her guilt.
In the process of paying for the boots, Mary Anne had rolled up her skirt and rummaged in the pocket sewn on the leg of her knickers.
Biddy had eyed the lace-edged pocket.
‘I might sew on one of they meself. Keep my Alf’s hands off it. Does it work with your Henry?’
‘Safer than the Bank of England. It’s not my knickers he’s after – it’s what they cover!’
Biddy laughed. ‘Men! Like bloody animals they are!’
Mary Anne handed her the money. ‘I lend you a shilling, you pay me back one shilling and thruppence or I sell the boots.’
That was how it had started. Biddy never did pay back the money and Mary Anne kept the boots, only selling them once Stanley had grown out of them. But there were other times and other neighbours needing a loan to tide them over, and so her business had grown. She’d turned a good profit.
The whole neighbourhood – or at least the women in it – had got wind of what she was doing and as her rates were cheaper than the real pawnbroker and it wasn’t so far to go, she didn’t have a bad little trade.
‘You’ve got a good business ’ere,’ said Biddy. ‘And yer kids are grown up. Love ’em as you may, babies can cramp yer lifestyle. They certainly did mine, and as we get older, well …’
‘I’ll send her a note,’ said Mary Anne. ‘I’ve got a stamp somewhere.’
‘You could send a note with Muriel Harrison’s husband,’ suggested Biddy.
Mary Anne shook her head. Muriel’s husband was a bus driver used to taking notes a bit wide of his route – not that Old Market was any problem. He was on that route – Knowle West to Eastville. All he’d have to do was pull up, say he was off to take a leak and nip round the back of Old Market to where Nellie Riley lived.
‘I prefer to keep my business to myself.’ She threw Biddy a warning look. ‘And I’d prefer you to do the same if you don’t mind.’
Biddy threw up her hands as though astonished that Mary Anne could possibly suspect her of doing otherwise.
‘I won’t breathe a word. Everything will be fine. Give it a fortnight and you’ll be right as rain. Her concoctions don’t taste all that grand, but they do work – I’ve heard hundreds say so, and anyway, even if it don’t, she’s got other methods, if you know what I mean.’