Authors: Lizzie Lane
His mother, standing with her hand resting on her husband’s shoulder, looked young and confident, even happy.
He caressed her image with his thumb. This was the Ruth Maurice that used to be, the young woman who had gone on to turn her back on her family, her roots and her religion and married a Lutheran pastor.
After eating the last of his lunch, he took the dirty dishes to the kitchen sink. His uncle’s kitchen was very much like the rest of the premises; it had seen better days. There was a larder set into the wall, the door sawn in half at some time so that the top half opened onto a marble slab to better keep meat and dairy products. Above it were shelves holding tinned foods, bags of flour, jams and preserves. The bottom half opened on a storage space for vegetables.
Across from the larder was a deep sink with a wooden draining board. It had a single tap of indeterminate age, which was stiff and difficult to turn on.
Clamping both hands around it, he wrenched it on, promising himself that he’d fix it shortly, fit a new washer or whatever was needed.
Cold water poured first sluggishly then in angry spats as though resentful of being roused into action.
After washing it in cold water with a few lumps of soda, he took the fine Chinese porcelain into the shop, putting it back into one of the display cabinets from which he’d taken it. Using the items left in pledge had become something of a
habit. Yesterday he’d used some items from a Royal Worcester set; the day before had been Coalport, today had been Chinese, and tomorrow? His eyes scanned the boxes, their contents scrawled in spidery writing.
He’d started making up an inventory a few days before that and, after discovering the most exquisite crystal glassware, had decided it was a great shame that these things were merely stored, and never used. They were like bones, merely the frame on which flesh is hung, just one part of the body or of life.
While shutting the cabinet door, he heard a sound from outside followed by a slight trembling of the front door, as if someone was leaning against it.
There followed a scuffling of many feet coupled with giggles and squeals of mischievous laughter, then a scratching noise, like a knife or nail down paintwork.
He shouted, heard running feet, and sprang for the door.
The local children! He’d had a few skirmishes with them when names had been called and faces pulled, but nothing he couldn’t handle, and good God, he’d certainly seen and handled a lot more than name-calling and face-pulling back in Germany, but still, they were becoming a nuisance.
His uncle being a cautious man, there were three bolts securing the door, one at the top, one at the bottom and the largest in the middle.
Their stiff blackness fuelled his exasperation, each grating obstinately as he dragged them across, the latter proving the most obstinate of all. Eventually, using both hands, it grated back. Impatient to discover what was going on, he flung the door back so it slammed against the wall, sending the loose glass in the display cabinets shivering in their frames.
A winter sun threw the thin shadows of lampposts across the silent street, meeting the continuous shadow of the opposite terrace like sticks diving into a black pool. Apart from the
shadows and a chill wind blowing the dust from the gutter, the street was empty.
He stayed looking this way and that for a few minutes more, thought he heard the giggling again, but couldn’t be sure. If someone was still around, they were hanging about on the corner of Bottle Lane, a narrow alley of mouldering tenements. The lane divided the rank of shops from the rest of the terrace on this side of the street and smelled of dank cellars and rotting vermin.
Just children, he thought. Children playing.
He began to shut the door, when something caught his eye and turned his blood cold. The door was solid, heavy Victorian joinery, four panels set into a strong frame. On arrival, Michael had admired its strength, the careful workmanship and the dull blue paint that made it look even stronger.
Today he stared, his complexion paling at the sight of a white-painted swastika, a dribble of paint running from it like a demon’s tail.
Sweat poured down his face and his body trembled as he slammed the door shut and squeezed the bolts home.
Leaning his head back against the door, he heard the hammering of his heart, the sweat turning cold between his shoulder blades.
Children! Just children, but children could be evil. Children could endanger his life and his freedom.
The chill memories returned, like dancing devils behind his closed eyes.
‘The moment they see that uniform, the streets are yours,’ said his friend Curt, his blue eyes sparkling behind a pair of wire-rimmed spectacles.
Michael ran his hands down the starched shirt and fingered the embroidered badges and insignia of the National Socialists
and the senior arm of Jungsturm Adolf Hitler, the Hitler Boys Troop, of fourteen- to eighteen-year-olds founded in 1922. He was so excited he couldn’t speak.
‘So pleased to have you join us,’ said Curt, offering his hand. ‘It was about time.’
Michael shrugged. ‘I would have done before, but … you know how parents are.’
Curt pushed his glasses back on his nose with one finger. ‘I know. They don’t understand. The Great War has a lot to do with it. So many of our brave men dying through no fault of their own, betrayed by the Western democracies and their Jewish bankers. But parents come round, though, of course, with your father being a pastor it must be even more difficult.’
‘He’s not my father! He’s only my stepfather,’ retorted Michael, displaying his contempt for the man who had denied him the companionship of his peers, other boys of his age. ‘My real father died when I was a child.’
‘Then he has no right to tell you what to do.’
‘He could when I was younger. That was why I could never join you in the junior Jungsturm Adolf Hitler. He said that even the British Scout movement was based on militarism and he didn’t approve.’
Curt laughed. ‘The Scout movement was never like this! This is much more serious stuff. The Fuehrer makes great demands on our loyalty. Still,’ he said, slapping Michael’s arm. ‘You’re older now. It’s up to you what you do. The worse your stepfather can do is to denounce you from the pulpit.’
Michael laughed. ‘He can denounce all he likes. I won’t be there to hear him. I’ve had enough of him and the church.’
Curt slapped him on the back. ‘Good for you, my old friend! And give it no mind. We have our own church and Adolf Hitler is our God!’
Mary Anne counted the bus fare into her purse, noted that it also contained two half-crowns and a two shilling piece, plus two five pound notes folded into quarters.
It was the third time she’d checked it since getting herself ready to go out. Again, like she had on the previous occasions, she slid it back into her handbag next to the sanitary towels and the clean pair of knickers Mrs Riley had suggested she bring.
Closing her eyes, she wished that her periods would suddenly start, that all would be well and she wouldn’t have to go through this. It hadn’t happened so far. The foul-tasting stuff bought from Mrs Riley had not worked and her belly was getting bigger. She shivered as she remembered the point of the knitting needle sticking out through the rose decorating the side of Mrs Riley’s bag, but she had to face it. She had to do this. The thought of worrying herself sick all over Christmas had brought her to the decision.
Once Henry and the family had left for work, she’d washed, changed and got herself ready. For no other reason than looking good might breed more confidence in herself, she had taken a great deal of care when choosing what she was going to wear for the trip to Old Market. She decided on a dark-red costume
with a belted waist. It was cold so she’d have to wear her best coat, a navy blue Kashmir with patch pockets and turned-back cuffs. Her hat and handbag were black and matched her shoes.
Biddy poked her head around the door at quarter to nine. Even at that hour of the morning, she was wearing too much powder and red lipstick, a surplus smear of it staining her teeth.
‘Just come to wish you luck.’
‘How are you feeling?’
Mary Anne nodded stiffly. ‘I’ve felt better.’
Biddy tutted in a sympathetic way. ‘Never mind. It’ll be over soon.’
Fear tangled with anticipation in her stomach, like barbed wire tightening into a huge ball.
She eyed her reflection in the mantelpiece mirror for one last time and swallowed.
‘Yes.’ Her voice sounded small and faraway. Eyes that looked too big and bright for her face stared out at her and, although she tried to tell herself that everything would be fine, she’d heard tell of women who hadn’t been fine – afterbirth left inside, small limbs ripped from an unborn body …
‘Do you want me to wait with you at the bus stop?’
Noticing that her face had turned paler at the macabre thoughts, Mary Anne dabbed rouge on her cheeks to add a little colour, licked her lips and shook her head.
‘No. It might not look right.’
The bus journey to Old Market passed in a blur of buildings and traffic, though she could still detect wartime changes. Sandbag barriers had been built around buildings and amenities thought to be at risk of bombing, like the railway station, the docks and the city council chambers.
The clock outside the King’s Cinema said ten thirty when she finally alighted in Old Market. Some kind of army post had
been erected down the centre reservation of the wide expanse where traders used to sell everything from chickens to choppers, and men in uniform marched in and out of the barracks of the Gloucester Regiment.
Alighting from the bus, Mary Anne took a deep breath, ran her hands down over her hips as though the skirt she wore needed smoothing – which it did not.
Following the directions written down by one of her neighbours who had had occasion to use Mrs Riley herself, Mary Anne turned into Red Cross Lane then took a left at the bottom.
She was thankful for the support of other women. That was the main difference between her business and the real one inherited by Michael Maurice. It wasn’t just about making a shilling; it was also about mutual support. Inheriting that first bit of money from her mother had also benefited her neighbours as well as her own family, helping them as much as helping herself. And even more than that, she thought, and almost smiled. What pawnbroker had a shop where pledges were given and money handed out while gossiping over a cup of tea and a biscuit?
The feeling in her stomach was raw and empty, yet at the same time prickly and sickening. The closer she got to Mrs Riley’s address, the more her legs turned to jelly.
Dark as a conker, Mrs Riley lived in a gypsy caravan in a yard bounded by dry stone walls and strips of corrugated iron, the ground stony and rough with weeds. In winter it was chock-a-block with carousels, dodgem car rides and even the big wheel, all broken down for winter storage. For the rest of the year, the brightly coloured caravan stood alone, the swirling colours of its bodywork in stark contrast to its grim, grey and empty surroundings. No horse being present, the end of each shaft rested on an upturned oil drum.
The early morning rain had been followed by a northerly
wind that had swiftly turned the wet pavements to ice. The cobbles of the lane were dangerous to walk on, but once she had reached the yard that housed Mrs Riley’s caravan the smooth ground turned to earth and stones so she ceased slipping and sliding.
The caravan was a riot of red roses, green leaves and the bluest birds she had ever seen, skilfully wrought in raised carvings. Green shutters sat either side of windows curtained with heavy Victorian lace, and a set of three wooden steps led up to the gaily painted door.
Mary Anne stood and stared, barely able to believe that such a shameful act could occur inside a place of such fairytale beauty. For a brief moment she thought about turning round and taking the next bus home. She would tell Henry, endure his anger and fully commit herself to caring for another child for many years to come.
She closed her eyes. The thought of it was too much to bear. The little independence she had would be at an end. No, she couldn’t face it. She had to have some life before it was too late.
The biting wind chose that moment to squeeze through a gap between the roofs surrounding the yard. Mary Anne hugged her coat more firmly about her, pulling the astrakhan collar against her face, feeling its soft, comforting warmth, though her cheeks glowed pink with cold.
Hesitating before knocking, she turned her options over in her mind one last time, arguing herself out of it and at the same time urging herself to go on.
The top half of the door opened almost immediately to reveal Mrs Riley, her deep-set eyes glittering in her nut-brown face.
Mary Anne faltered in her speech; easy to do when faced with such a searching look. It made her feel like a pile of pennies being counted. Which is exactly what I am, she thought.
‘Ah!’ said Mrs Riley, her smile revealing a lack of teeth and traces of chewed tobacco on her tongue. ‘I thought it were you. Come on in, me dear. Come on in.’
‘I’ve come …’ Mary Anne began, but couldn’t go on. Licking the ice from her chapped lips, she tried to control her shivers.
‘Bloody cold out there. Come on in.’
Although she sounded friendly, although her speech was common, Mrs Riley had a knowing look in her eyes.
Of course she knows why I’m here.
Mary Anne didn’t like being regarded as vulnerable; she was determined to ensure that Mrs Riley knew exactly how she felt about paying for the brown liquid.
‘The stuff you charged me two pounds for didn’t work.’
Mrs Riley stood aside so she could pass between her and an upholstered seat to one side of the caravan and shut the two parts of the door, bolting each so they wouldn’t be disturbed.
Despite the gravity of the situation, Mary Anne found herself standing open-mouthed, staring at the richness of her surroundings.
From the outside the caravan was richly carved but far smaller than the ground floor of a terraced house. Inside it was a palace of gleaming mirrors, lace covered shelves, a brass range, brass handles and thick Turkish rugs.