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Authors: Lizzie Lane

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BOOK: Wartime Wife
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‘Thank you, Mr Sampson.’

The hand he waved at them was patterned with patches of dried blood. Lizzie grimaced.

It was going to be difficult holding on to Stanley and pushing her bike because the little monster was squirming like a tadpole. His mates were standing at a distance making faces and taunting him with cries of ‘sissy, sissy, sister,’ urging him to join them.

‘They murders people in that shop and minces ’em into faggots,’ shouted one of them.

‘That’s disgusting,’ said Lizzie.

Stanley grinned and his eyes shone up at Lizzie with such enthusiasm for the idea that she shivered.

‘And in pies,’ he added, gloating when Lizzie visibly paled.

‘Come on. Home,’ she said, pushing him in front of her having given up trying to hold on to him while pushing the bike. ‘You just stay where I can see you …’

The moment her hand left Stanley’s shoulder, he was off, his friends crowing in delight as he joined them, whooping like a group of Indians surrounding a wagon train.

Before she had chance to park the bike and grab him, they were gone.

‘Little sod!’

She wasn’t usually easily angered and rarely swore, but today could have progressed more smoothly. Recalling the events of the afternoon soon drove her anger away, though she did have some misgivings. Even though he’d declared his love for her – or it had seemed that way – Peter’s attitude seemed frankly casual. If it had been the first time for him as it had for her, why hadn’t he reacted in a similar way?

She pushed Mr Sampson’s comments that hinted at Peter being a bit of a playboy to the back of her mind. In time they’d marry, she told herself; she had no doubt about that. It was the thing to do, and they would do it.

Dusk was deepening into darkness. Squares of bright amber fell from shop windows onto damp pavements.

Trams and trolley buses trundled past bringing the workers home from the tobacco factory. The factory was in East Street, the building red-brick mock Gothic; pretty little arches above square, blank windows. Behind those windows, a vast array of production machines clanked and jangled, men and women labouring like workers in a hive. At the end of the week, they’d be delving in their wage packets, spending and puffing on the products they spent all day making.

Brewery drays thundered in and around the trams, the great shires snorting steamy breath as they made their way with their lightened load back to George’s Brewery, a warm stable
and fresh hay.

Lizzie surveyed the scene through screwed-up eyes, her nose wrinkling at the dusty air. Sometimes she saw a car and immediately thought of Peter. It was the first time she’d been in love and she was sure no one or nothing could ever equal what she was feeling right now.

At last she turned into Kent Street.

‘Lizzie!’

Wearing trousers that he’d long grown out of, his jacket so big that the cuffs covered his hands, Patrick Kelly leaned against the corner shop window. He had square shoulders and long legs, his hair the colour of corn and his eyes as blue as the trees on willow pattern china.

Lizzie pulled the bike to a standstill. Tilting her chin upwards, she smiled directly into his eyes and his naturally wary expression melted.

‘No work today?’

‘Mr Shellard ain’t well.’

‘Oh.’

‘Been on the scrumpy again,’ Patrick explained on seeing the knowing look on Lizzie’s face.

Patrick’s mother had a bad name and he had no father, a fact that had puzzled Lizzie when she’d been younger. Her curiosity aroused, she had questioned her Sunday school teacher why that was so. Miss Pamplew, a spinster of sixty with the physique of a malnourished sparrow, had assured her that everyone did indeed have a father. The birdlike face had puckered up with Christian kindness when she’d asked why she wanted to know. Lizzie had explained to her about Patrick Kelly.

‘He’s got a lot of uncles and a mother, but no father. I heard someone call him a bastard. Is that the name for people with no father?’

Miss Pamplew, a born nun if ever there was, had coloured
up and dragged her to the tap in the outside yard where she’d pushed a piece of soap between her teeth, held her mouth open beneath the water pump and told her never to utter such a wicked word again.

‘I’m going to join the army. I’m going away from here,’ Patrick blurted.

Lizzie’s face froze as she took in the news, and then she laughed. ‘Don’t be silly. You’re too young.’

‘I’m eighteen … and a half,’ he said, sloping his shoulders back as though he were already wearing a uniform and required to stand to attention. ‘Every able-bodied man is being called up, but some of us are off to the recruiting centre soon as we can.’

Lizzie eyed his lean frame sceptically. ‘You need feeding up if you’re going to do that,’ she said, and immediately delved into the parcels loaded into the pannier at the front of her bike. She got out the pie she’d bought for Mrs Selwyn and thrust the package into his hands. ‘It’s a pie. I’ve heard an army marches on its stomach. You’ll need it more than me or my family.’ Or Mrs Selwyn for that matter.

It was a well-known fact that Patrick fended for himself. His mother never cooked. Half his life he’d lived on charity. His fingers curled over the small package and his jaw moved as though he were already savouring the taste of it. Pride stopped him from licking his lips but his voice broke with emotion.

‘At least the army will feed me.’

It started to rain. Lizzie brushed at the fine drops speckling her hair. ‘It’ll seem funny … you not being here any more.’

His face cracked into a smile. ‘Better get used to it. There’s going to be a lot of us. Most of us will be going to France according to the newspaper, and some to Belgium, p’raps even Turkey like men did in the first lot.’

‘Such faraway places.’ She thought of all the boys and
young men in the street not being there any more, all off to fight a war. She’d been at school with a lot of them.

The rain became heavier. They stood there, the gathering gloom more like January than October, appropriate weather for the man-made storm presently gathering momentum.

Patrick spoke first. He looked sheepish but sounded brave. ‘Will you come with me to the recruiting office? There’s no one else I can ask.’

‘Yes. Of course I will.’

‘Will you write to me – if I write to you and let you know where I am?’

‘Oh! Yes. Why not?’

She shrugged off her surprise and smiled warmly. For some reason, it had never occurred to her that Patrick could write. He was good with mechanical things, wooden things; in fact anything that broke, he could put back together. He’d mended her bike enough times, fixed her punctures and fitted a bell.

‘Yes,’ she said quickly before he detected her disbelief. ‘I’d love for you to write to me. And I’ll write back. I promise I will.’

Just before reaching the front door of the house she’d been born in, she glanced back in time to see Patrick biting into the pie. She wondered when he’d last eaten and was glad she’d given him something.

Chapter Five

Mary Anne had almost gone out of her mind on finding Stanley missing, looking for him in the streets running parallel with Kent Street, and finally coming across him sitting on top the cannon in the park and coughing between shouts of ‘Load the shot!’ and ‘Fire!’

‘Home!’

He came begrudgingly, dragging his feet, his new friends at first jeering him, then shouting that they’d see him tomorrow.

‘Down the Malago,’ they shouted.

‘Down the Malago,’ he shouted back.

Mary Anne jerked him so hard forwards that he covered the same length of ground with two steps that usually took three. ‘Oh no you won’t. You’re to keep away from that smelly stream.’

Once he’d eaten, he was packed off to bed, coughing and grumbling, his face slick with sweat and his cheeks pink as apples.

Earlier in the year, he’d gone down with a fierce chest infection and at one stage it had seemed she might lose him. She’d never quite got over it, watching him for the slightest sign of the infection returning.

Frantic with worry, she’d slept most nights in the front
parlour where his bed had been placed when things had seemed at their worse. The bed was still there – just in case.

‘When’s our Stanley going to join Harry – all boys together?’ Lizzie had queried.

‘When I say so,’ she’d answered, not trusting to anyone else’s judgement except her own.

She was still wary about letting him out to play or go to school. That night he’d slept well and, following a morning dose of medicine and his plea that he was still too ill to go to school, she let him stay in bed.

A tap on the back door heralded the arrival of Aggie Hill. She was one of her regulars, always wanting a bit of extra money for something. Her ginger curls fought to escape a thin hairnet and formed corkscrews of colour like small springs around her face.

‘Joe’s off!’ she said abruptly. She pulled out a chair, slumped firmly into it and promptly burst into tears.

Guessing she had a lot of listening to do, Mary Anne lit the gas beneath the kettle, fetched the teacups from the dresser and spooned tea into a shiny brown pot that she placed on the kitchen table beside the milk jug and sugar bowl.

Affectionately shaking her next-door neighbour’s shoulder, she said, ‘Come on, Aggie. Tell me about it while the kettle boils.’

Aggie dabbed at her eyes. ‘You know our Joe’s in the Territorials?’

‘Yes.’

‘Some bigwig from the army went into Wills’ and said all them that are in the Territorials are to go home, fetch their kit and report to Temple Meads railway station by eight o’clock this evening.’ Aggie leaned across the table, her face wet and her eyes brimming with tears. ‘When am I going to see him again, Mary Anne? When?’

Mary Anne declined to answer such a question. ‘Let’s get this tea made.’

The gas made a popping sound as she turned it off. Normally, she didn’t give it much notice. Today it made her jump. Usually, she only gave six stirs of the pot, plenty enough to mash the tea. On this occasion, she gave it double that while she considered the best thing to say to a woman whose son was off to war.

She placed both cups and saucers on the table, pushing Aggie’s close so that the lip of the saucer touched her arm. The woman’s eyes were brimming with tears and she was staring at the wall.

‘Help yerself to sugar and milk, then take a good gulp of it.’

Aggie did as she was told.

Mary Anne sipped at her own cup.

Aggie blew her nose in a man-sized handkerchief that looked as though it might once have been the tail of a shirt.

‘He’s me only son, Mary Anne. If he gets killed …’

Mary Anne patted her shoulder. ‘You can’t think that, Aggie. He wouldn’t want you to think that either. You’ve got to send him off with a smile on your face and tell him it won’t be long before he’s home on leave.’

‘It’s not easy.’

‘Of course it’s not easy, but he’s got to go and be brave, and you’ve got to stay behind and be brave. You’ve got to put on a brave face even though you’re frightened of what might happen. But just because it might happen, doesn’t mean to say it will. And anyway, they’re saying it’s all going to be over by Christmas.’

Aggie sniffed; her eyes, naturally bulging and brown, now became as big as saucers. ‘Do they?’

Mary Anne patted her hand. ‘I think Chamberlain said so, and he should know. He’s been to Germany.’

It wasn’t a lie. She’d heard it from someone. At the time she’d recalled hearing the same thing said about the Great War, and that had lasted four years. Over a million men were dead at the end of it. But Aggie didn’t want facts, only reassurance.

Aggie blew her nose again and wiped the last of the wetness from her bloated cheeks. ‘And Chamberlain didn’t want this war, so he’ll probably still be trying to stop it,’ she said, her back stiffening as though she’d just breathed in a lungful of courage. ‘Me spirits is lifted, and talking of spirits …’

Mary Anne braced herself for what was coming. Aggie Hill was a spiritualist; she believed in it all, even the charlatans who asked for a shilling before going into a trance and speaking in what passed for the voice of the departed. She was also keen on telling the future from reading the tea leaves.

‘I’ll do mine first,’ she said, draining her cup, tipping it upside down and turning it three times in its saucer.

Taking the cup in both hands, she held it close to her face, her bulging eyes threatening to come out on stalks as she peered at its contents.

‘I can see birds, a lot of birds flying in the sky.’

‘What sort of birds?’

‘Well. They could be any sort. Big birds.’

‘Like seagulls?’

Aggie’s face brightened. ‘Yes, I think they’re seagulls. Now there’s a thing. Joe said he’d probably end up down on the south coast.’

Mary Anne smiled to herself. ‘Well there you are then.’

Tea leaves just looked like – well – tea leaves to her, but if it made Aggie happy, then what did it matter.

Aggie’s whole body sighed with relief. ‘Hope the weather holds. The fresh air will do him good.’

Her good spirits continued. ‘It don’t say here that any harm
will come to him, and the tea leaves do speak for up to two years ahead at least.’

‘No dark stranger then?’

Aggie had been a widow for years, her only income a widow’s pension, and Joe’s contribution from his job in the tobacco factory. She also cleaned the doctor’s surgery in the next street along with some of the posh houses down in Ashton where Mary Anne’s daughter Lizzie worked.

Aggie sighed. ‘Nobody could replace my Reggie. Nobody at all.’

Glad to see her happy again, Mary Anne drew the moment out, nudging Aggie’s arm. ‘You never know yer luck, Aggie!’

Aggie chortled with merriment, the broken veins of her cheeks turning even redder.

‘Is there anything else?’

Aggie narrowed her eyes, the tip of her nose almost meeting the rim of her cup. ‘I can see a new job coming, but not the same kind of thing that I’ve done before, something where I’ve got a lot of responsibility, and even a uniform!’ She glanced at Mary Anne. ‘Ooow! I’ve always wanted to be a nurse.’

BOOK: Wartime Wife
4.99Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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