Authors: Lizzie Lane
She pushed her hair back from her brow. At least she’d look respectable even if Henry were far from that.
Muttering disapproval under her breath and adding a small prayer that he wouldn’t be too drunk but merely be merry, she pulled the door open.
Her heart sank. Her stomach tightened. The brim of Henry Randall’s hat nestled around his neck, only the crown remaining on his fair wavy hair. Solemn-faced as a Sunday preacher, his hands were clasped before him as if in prayer.
‘I’m callin’ collectin’ for the church, madam,’ he pronounced, his voice sonorous though slurred.
Despite not wanting to rouse his temper, Mary Anne couldn’t help feeling mortified. Just as she’d guessed, curtains were twitching up and down the street, and women gossiping in doorways watched silently or tittered behind their hands.
‘Henry Randall!’ she hissed, grabbing his coat lapel and dragging him over the polished brass doorstep. ‘Get in here!’
She glanced up and down the street as she bundled him past her, through the doorway and into the passageway.
Two gossiping neighbours, huddled against an open door immediately opposite, were staring boldly, grinning as though Henry were providing a comedy turn purely for their benefit.
Mary Anne glared at them, dabbing her finger on the tip of her nose. ‘Had your eyeful or want your penny back,’ she shouted, tapping the end of her nose with her finger once more before slamming the door hard enough to set the whole house shuddering.
She imagined them talking about her, calling her a stuck-up cow because she didn’t talk like them, didn’t look like them and hadn’t come from the same district or class. She was different and would always be set apart.
Once the door was closed, her embarrassment got the better of her judgement. Why couldn’t he be different? Why did he have to get drunk? Why couldn’t he be like Edward, the man she should have married?
Nothing – not even fear – could stop her from lashing out.
Standing with her hands braced on her hips, her eyes blazed with anger.
‘You certainly have not been to any church, that’s for sure, unless the Red Cow has had a pulpit installed!’
Edward wouldn’t have behaved like this. Edward had been upright, brave and kind to everyone. Why did he have to die? Why had there been that other war?
By way of supporting himself, Henry spread his palms on one wall of the narrow hallway, his heels against the skirting on the opposite wall, as though laughing were too much for his body.
He tilted forwards, face close to hers. She winced as the smell of stale stout wafted over her.
There was contempt in her eyes and a grim set to her chin that wasn’t there when he was just coming out of his drunken state. When he was like this, in the heart of his drunkenness, she could say and do whatever she wanted.
‘Good God, you stink as though you’ve been swimming in it. Now get upstairs and sleep it off.’
A strong whiff of carbolic from her own hands mixed with the stink of stout as she gripped him by the scruff of his collar and the seat of his pants and frogmarched him along the passage, their heavy footsteps thundering over the uneven floorboards.
The front door opened – Lizzie, her eldest daughter, choosing that moment to come home from work. She looked amused when she saw her father. ‘Oh, Dad. Drunk again?’
He grinned at her. ‘My sweet little bird. You know I loves you, don’t you, my darling. You knows I loves you.’
‘Yes, I do,’ Lizzie answered, laughing and pressing herself against the wall as he tumbled back to within a few feet of the front door before her mother pushed him towards the narrow stairs.
‘What a state,’ said Mary Anne, the sour expression replaced with one of amiable toleration now that Lizzie was home. Lizzie would not see how it really was between them; none of her children would. She’d vowed from the day their firstborn had entered the world that this would be a happy house, that no matter her regrets, no hint of unhappiness would ever touch her children’s lives. ‘I told him it might be a good idea if he takes his bed down there.’
‘Just enjoying meself, but yer mother don’t like me doing that,’ he called over his shoulder. ‘You can tell that. Look at yer mother’s face. She don’t like me to enjoy meself.’
Mary Anne adopted the usual smile reserved for such a situation.
‘You go on and put the kettle on, Lizzie. I’ll be right back down once I’ve settled yer Dad. And if you could nip out into the scullery and bring in that pot of potatoes. Put it straight on the gas stove. The salt’s already in them.’
She said it in a very matter-of-fact way, as though that’s all it would be: settling him down so he’d sleep it off and they’d all have dinner together, just one happy family.
In truth every muscle in her body tensed at the thought of what would truly come once he awoke.
Burdened bedsprings squealed in protest as he fell onto the bed in the front bedroom they’d shared since the day they were married. Mary Anne eased off his boots and placed them neatly at the foot of the bed. He was snoring fit to wake the devil even before she’d straightened up, rubbing at the ache in her lower back. She stared at him as she would a stranger. This was her husband, the man that had been
for her to marry. His mouth hung wide open. A sliver of spittle trailed from the corner of his mouth to the tip of his moustache.
Was it her imagination or were the walls of the room closing in on her, the air stale although she could see a curtain blowing
in the draught from an ill-fitting window. She didn’t recognise her discomfort as resentment, but only knew that something threatened to suffocate her.
He was too big and ugly for the tiny room that she had tried so hard to make pretty. Tiny mauve flowers, painted with gay abandon by virtue of a small set of watercolours someone had pledged and never redeemed, decorated the whitewashed walls. Amongst the smaller, scattered buds, she’d painted bouquets of similar blooms, but larger and bordered with other colours of paint to look like frames. Other pictures in real frames had once hung on the walls, hurled and smashed when Henry had one of his moods. These events never happened when the children were there. Violence was the provenance between man and wife and occurred only when they were alone.
Was this the same man as the one who used to make her laugh and took her dancing? Had he really been any different than Edward?
Edward had been from the same background as she; his father had been a manager at a rope-making company. Her father had owned a grocery shop. They’d been heralded as the ideal couple. A few years and they would have been married. Unfortunately, the shooting of the Austrian emperor in 1914 had heralded the Great War.
Edward hadn’t joined up until 1916, so they’d had a few years together. Only a few months into the conflict, in the depths of winter, he had died, not shot or gassed by the enemy but taken by pneumonia.
Six months before his death and convinced they would always be together, that he would somehow survive the war, they’d made love before his departure. A child had been conceived.
The child had been adopted and only six months later she’d met Henry. He’d lifted her spirits and, encouraged by her
parents, they’d married without him ever knowing that there’d been someone else and that she wasn’t a virgin.
That first year had been idyllic; it seemed that nothing could come between them, so Mary Anne had confessed her sin.
‘There was Edward before you,’ she’d told him. ‘Three months after he got killed I gave birth to his child. At my parents’ insistence, the child was adopted. And then I met you. And my parents said …’
Simple facts uttered in innocence but received with a darkening countenance by a man who never forgave her.
The considerate husband, who had been proud to serve his country, had considered himself cheated. His mood had changed. No longer attentive and kind, he’d turned jealous and quick to anger. No matter what she did, he’d never changed back to the man she’d married.
Memories of the time before her marriage and romantic dreams of Edward were what kept her sane. She had transferred her love to her children and they were what kept the marriage going.
But Edward was her solace. Unknown to Henry, she still had his letters.
At the thought of them, she eyed the walnut dressing table that had once belonged to her mother. There was a drawer on either side beneath the mirror. Inside of each was another drawer tucked back out of the way and unseen unless you knew they were there.
Sometimes, when her spirits were low and she was in the house alone, she retrieved those letters, sadness stabbing at her heart as her fingers touched the crisp paper, reading and remembering the hopes and dreams that had come to nothing.
Henry worked as hard as anyone driving one of the city’s blue cabs, his permanent pitch being outside Temple Meads
Station. The tips could be decent if he was lucky enough to pick up some ‘big pot’ fares. When it wasn’t in use, he kept the vehicle in a garage in South Street. Unfortunately, there were a number of pubs between South Street and Kent Street and by the looks of his clothes and the smell of his breath he’d been in every one. With Henry it was a case of grab the housekeeping whenever possible, though you wouldn’t think so to hear him.
‘You should all be grateful to me for keeping you fed and warm; not like when I was a young whippersnapper, out to work at five in the morning earning two bob a week looking after the milkman’s horse. Ten years old I was, just ten years old.’
Harry, Daw and Lizzie adopted an attitude of smiling forbearance, telling him that of course they knew, and of course they were grateful. Young Stanley was oblivious to it all.
The reality was different, though unacknowledged by Henry.
After a good rummage, she went back down the stairs, the coins she’d lifted from his coat pocket swiftly counted from one hand to the other.
Lizzie looked up from unbuckling her shoes and rubbing at her toes.
Mary Anne noticed, her face buckling with concern. ‘Are those shoes pinching you?’
Lizzie grimaced. ‘Just a bit. Still, they’re fine for work.’ She steeled herself for what was coming. Just as she expected, a slight frown creased her mother’s brows.
‘Here,’ said Mary Anne, fishing under her skirt and taking out a pound note then a ten shilling note. ‘Get yourself a new pair.’
Even as a child, Lizzie had noticed that her mother couldn’t bear for her children to suffer any discomfort or misfortune in their lives. She’d always insisted on making things better. As children they’d appreciated her indulgence; as adults Lizzie was beginning to regard her selflessness as interference.
‘Ma! I’ve just told you. There’s no need. They’ll be OK for work.’
Mary Anne turned huffy. ‘OK? What does that mean? Why can’t you say something English?’
Lizzie immediately felt guilty. She hadn’t meant to hurt her mother. Mary Anne’s intentions were good, but sometimes Lizzie felt smothered.
‘Everyone says it in the pictures. It’s American. You know it is.’
Her mother pounced on cushions, beating them into shape before crushing them back into their respective chairs, putting things away in drawers, slamming them so hard that the cups hanging from hooks on the dresser tinkled like bells.
‘Well, this isn’t the pictures and it isn’t America!’
Lizzie deliberately massaged her toes again, her hair falling around her face and hiding her expression. She would say nothing until her mother had worked her disappointment out of her system.
No word was spoken until the crashing and slamming of dresser doors and drawers had slowed; until in effect there was nothing more to put away.
Her mother had never been much good at taking ‘no’ for an answer. Lizzie waited for what she was certain would come next.
The one pound and ten shilling note appeared beneath her bent head.
‘Go on. Take it. Buy yourself something nice.’
Lizzie sighed, stood up and covered her mother’s hand with her own.
buy yourself something nice, Ma. Do something special with it. I earn me own wage now. Spend it on yerself. You deserve it.’
‘Me?’ The tone of her voice and the look on her face said it all. She wasn’t used to spending on herself. Her children
were her world. ‘What in the world do I need?’ Her smile was hesitant and accompanied by a shrug.
‘Oh, Ma,’ she said, throwing her arms around her mother’s neck. ‘You deserve all the best things money can buy.’
‘It can’t buy me love,’ she said, her voice muffled against Lizzie’s hair.
‘No,’ said Lizzie, cupping her mother’s face in her hands. ‘It can’t. You’ve got my love, Ma, and you always will no matter what you do.’
There were tears in her mother’s eyes when she smiled. ‘You are a good daughter,’ she said softly.
‘And you are a good mother, but we’re not babies any more. You deserve something for yourself.’
Unless they really knew her well, or were like everyone else in the family, took her too much for granted, they wouldn’t have noticed that her smile stiffened and that her eye colour changed with the thoughts behind them.
Lizzie had always been more observant than her siblings and wondered at the feelings behind the changed expression.
Perhaps she regrets us not being babies any more, she thought. There couldn’t be any other explanation.
‘And how was work today?’ asked Mary Anne.
‘Fine,’ said Lizzie brightly, brushing her skirt as she stepped away from her mother.
‘Of course. I’ll go and hang my coat up.’
She felt her mother’s eyes following her out and wondered just how much she had guessed about her job, especially with regard to Wednesdays.
Wednesday morning: half-day closing for every shopkeeper in the city and her favourite day of the week. Lizzie took a deep breath, tucked a stray sliver of hair behind her ear and mentally rehearsed what she was going to say before knocking on the parlour door.
Mrs Selwyn, her employer, was sitting in an armchair, the light from the window falling over her, adding much-needed pallor to a face prone to pinkness. Lizzie had originally been employed as a maid. In time, once Mrs Selwyn noticed she was a passable cook and excellent organiser, she found herself housekeeper at eighteen years of age.