Authors: Lizzie Lane
Now! How best could she put this?
‘Will you … you know … do anything before he goes?’
Daw had inherited the dark hair and white skin of her father. Two round patches of pink appeared on her cheeks when she blushed, making her even prettier than she was. Lizzie
smoothed her own honey-coloured locks back from her face. The same grey eyes as those of her mother fixed on Daw.
Daw flushed. ‘What a question! I don’t know what you mean.’
‘Oh yes you do,’ said Lizzie in a low, even voice. ‘You know exactly what I mean. I can see it in your eyes so there’s no point denying it.’
Daw’s dark eyes fluttered nervously as she swiftly rolled her stockings up into a tight little ball. ‘He wants to,’ she said in a hushed voice, sucking in her lower lip and glancing over her shoulder on the off chance someone was listening.
The house had only two bedrooms. A curtain divided Harry’s sleeping area from their own where they shared a double bed.
‘Harry won’t be back yet,’ said Lizzie interpreting Daw’s cautious glance. ‘He’s rarely back before midnight – you should know that by now.’
Chin almost touching her chest, Daw sat down on the bed.
‘I don’t know what to do. I can’t bear the thought of him going away. We talked about getting married, or at least engaged.’
She smiled shyly when she said the last bit.
Lizzie swallowed a pang of jealousy. ‘Daw, that’s marvellous!’
‘Don’t tell anyone.’
‘Of course I won’t.’
Something of the old intimacy swept over them. Their eyes met.
‘Should I give in?’ said Daw, chewing her lip, a nervous habit she’d acquired in childhood. ‘I mean, we’ve been together practically all our lives and we are going to get married. Would you do it if you knew Peter was going to marry you?’
Lizzie sucked in her breath. ‘Yes,’ she blurted. ‘I would … I would.’
Later, she lay in bed with her eyes wide open, wishing she hadn’t sounded so encouraging. It was for Daw to make her own mind up, just as she had, though she hadn’t had the courage to tell her sister that.
It will keep, she thought to herself. She turned onto her side and fell into a deep sleep disturbed only by the sound of Harry getting into bed on the other side of the dividing curtain as the clock on St John’s church struck three.
There was something on the wireless about gas masks and not throwing potato rinds away but keeping them in a bin for pigswill or chicken feed. Mary Anne only caught snatches of the plummy voice waxing forth on something a bloke with a cut-glass accent couldn’t possibly know anything about.
What did he know about running a home and being a woman?
Her thoughts drifted to a more important matter. Mrs Riley’s mixture hadn’t worked. Straightening her stocking seams, she composed her face and headed for the lavatory, a small brick-built blot at the end of the garden.
She’d checked herself again and again – perhaps three times in the past hour. There was still no sign of bleeding. Desperation makes you do silly things, she thought to herself before pulling up her underwear and emerging from the lavatory.
Three gardens down, Vi Partridge waved her podgy arm at her from behind a billowing line of washing. Mary Anne waved back and forced a smile. Vi had the figure of a cottage loaf – two big round bits, one on top the other – and her hairstyle matched her body. She sighed. What a boon it would be
if she was as stout as Vi; at least her belly wouldn’t show for a while. As it was she’d kept a decent figure; not as svelte as in her youth, but slim-hipped enough for a swelling belly to show.
Vi’s voice was as big as her body. ‘Your boy called up to this bleedin’ war yet?’
Mary Anne collected herself. ‘No. Not yet. Any of yours?’
Vi’s voice bounced over the garden fences. ‘My Roger’s signed up for the bleedin’ navy, stupid sod. Says he ain’t getting stuck in any bloody trench like ’is father was.’
Vi’s colourful language was well known. So was the fact that housework wasn’t her favourite pastime and that grass grew in her back porch. Still, thought Mary Anne, keeping a tidy house didn’t necessarily make a loving marriage so what did it matter?
She nodded her assent. ‘Give him my best regards.’
‘I will. You heard about them shelters – them tin things that’s supposed to keep us safe from bombs. I don’t fancy ’avin’ one of the soddin’ things in my garden. I’m stayin’ in me bed. If Hitler comes along and bombs me ass off, well, I got plenty to go round!’ She jiggled from her cheeks down, rivulets of movement falling like water over her body as she laughed. ‘You ’avin’ one of them?’
‘I haven’t given it much thought. I think I’d prefer to use the big ones they’re putting up in Melvin Square.’
The voice of Vi’s husband sounded from the house. ‘Vi! Vi!’
‘I’m coming, I’m coming,’ she shouted back.
The conversation at an end, Mary Anne went back inside.
The kitchen was warm and steamy from the suet pudding bubbling away on the stove.
Henry was rolling a cigarette from a tin he balanced on his knees. He was sitting in the armchair next to the fireplace. He looked up as she walked in.
‘You got diarrhoea or something?’
‘No,’ she said, instantly making a big thing of checking the suet pudding. ‘Whatever makes you think that?’
Henry turned back to the task of filling the flimsy white paper with just enough tobacco. ‘Well, you been in and out to that lavatory like a seaside donkey all bloody week.’
‘Just a bit of a stomach bug,’ she said, thankful that the steam could be blamed for the flush spreading over her face. She couldn’t bring herself to tell him the truth and hoped she wouldn’t live to regret it.
Dinner was on the table by the time Harry, her son and his father’s namesake, came home from the tobacco factory.
Harry was handsome, in his mother’s opinion, the best-looking young man in the whole city. He was dark-haired like his father, his skin clear and his eyes the colour of Bournvita chocolate.
He was also unbending as far as his father was concerned and not easily intimidated.
As Mary Anne laid the table, Lizzie and Daw came in and sat down, while Henry filled the kitchen with cigarette smoke, his body still sprawled in the only armchair at the side of the fireplace. He looked up, throwing his son an accusing glance even before he’d taken his boots off.
‘You were a bit bloody late getting in last night.’
‘So what? I’m over twenty-one.’
Mary Anne felt the contents of her stomach curdling. Why couldn’t Harry be more respectful to his father?
‘Go somewhere nice did you?’ she interjected in an effort to smooth things over.
‘I did indeed. Met up with friends, had a drink. It was good,’ Harry replied.
‘At that time?’ blared his father. ‘What pub round ’ere stays open all hours?’
‘I didn’t go to a pub. I went to a club.’
‘A nightclub?’ his father said incredulously.
Harry concentrated on hanging up his coat. ‘A nightclub.’
‘Well, just you remember whose house this is,’ said his father, cigarette trembling at the corner of his mouth. ‘As long as you’re under my roof you obey my laws, and I says you should be in by midnight or get your own place.’
‘Give me time and I will,’ said Harry, slumping into a chair beside his sisters at the table and taking a few deep breaths before bending down to loosen his bootlaces.
‘Is she pretty?’ Lizzie asked, totally ignoring her father’s chill expression and putting it down to plain old-fashioned worry.
Harry concentrated on rubbing his feet, frowning as he massaged his toes. ‘Is who pretty?’
‘The girl,’ said Lizzie.
‘Anyone we know?’ added his mother, gladly steering the conversation away from Henry’s critical disdain.
He smiled disarmingly. ‘That’s for me to know and you to find out, and knowing you women I dare say you’ll go snooping around and find out eventually.’
‘So?’ said Lizzie.
‘Yes, come on, Harry,’ added his mother.
Both women wore the most intense expressions. Both were bursting to know who it was.
Harry merely smirked, closed his eyes and leaned his head against the back of the chair. ‘So it’s up to you to find out. I’m certainly not telling you.’
At first his sleep was only feigned, but it wasn’t long before he was dozing.
After putting his work shoes away in the cupboard, Mary Anne dished up dinner. Every so often she glanced at her son, pleased to see him so completely at peace. And long may it be, she thought, praying to God that he wouldn’t be called up, that by some miracle he would be overlooked.
She put the cruet set on the table just as the news was read on the BBC. The sonorous voice was sharp and the words well defined. When the newsreader started reporting planes called Stukas screaming like banshees as they dived at civilian targets leaving hundreds dead, she turned it off.
‘Let’s at least eat in peace,’ she said.
For once Henry didn’t command her to turn it back on although he loved all this talk of fighting and killing. Residual threads of the BBC news flickered in the eyes of those sitting around the table. Only their father still wanted to talk about it.
‘Every man over the age of twenty is being called up,’ said Henry Randall, who was due to work the night shift. In preparation he had slept for two hours after a session at the Red Cow. His eyes were bright and his face animated with enthusiasm. ‘Tommy England will do his duty, never fear, though in my opinion, this country is going to need experienced commanders to see this through, though God knows if we’ve got any left worth their salt.’
‘John said it’s the air force that will win this war,’ said Daw, her voice faltering at the prospect of her beloved John shooting at the enemy and being shot at in return. ‘He’s dead keen on joining.’
‘Now, now, Daw, there’s nothing for you to fear. Aircraft are only used for reconnaissance, or were in my day. It’s still the Tommy on the ground that wins the war. Hand-to-hand combat; see the whites of their eyes and fire. Warfare ain’t changed that much, I can tell you.’
Lizzie eyed each member of her family in turn, wondered what would happen if England too was invaded like Poland and the other countries. She barely resisted the urge to shiver as she made what she considered a sensible comment. ‘They said on the wireless that people in Poland are being killed by Stukas – aren’t they aeroplanes?’
Her father threw her a withering look. ‘They’re not British. What we do and what they do are two different things. We still have a sense of honour.’
‘I do hope so,’ said Mary Anne, unable to resist glancing up at the ceiling. ‘Imagine hearing planes overhead and a bomb dropping through the roof.’
Henry threw her a contemptuous glare. ‘Then stop imagining. They won’t get this far.’
‘Come on then, Dad,’ said a smiling Harry in a voice Mary Anne recognised as the one he always used to goad his father. ‘Tell us how the generals won the last war.’
Mary Anne noticed the faraway look in her husband’s eyes. She knew what was coming. He started as he always did. ‘I remember how it was …’
Using the cruet set, the bread knife and a tin of golden syrup, plus three sets of cutlery, he explained the situation as he remembered it.
Mary Anne raised her eyes to heaven.
Not all this again.
Harry hid a grin behind his hand, pretending to wipe his mouth. Their son had his own opinions along with his own style. He preferred good clothes to drinking, a regular haircut and wore a trilby, even to work.
‘Now this was the Belgian frontier,’ Henry said laying out the bread knife and three forks into a ragged line on the tablecloth. ‘This was the Kaiser’s army.’ The cruet set was manoeuvred into position directly opposite the bread knife. ‘And here,’ he said placing the butter dish in the centre of the table, ‘this is Sarajevo where the Archduke Frederick—’
Mary Anne broke her silence and corrected him. ‘Franz Ferdinand. His name was Franz Ferdinand.’
Henry Randall frowned at her. ‘Are you sure, woman?’
‘Very sure. I read it in the newspaper at the time.’
Henry grumbled a low guttural sound. He made the same
sound when he was about to eject phlegm from his lungs.
Due to her condition, the bile rose to her throat. Swallowing it was hard.
‘That may be, woman. But as I said, it happened in Austria, not Germany. That’s where the two differ. One was Austrian. One German.’
‘Hitler is Austrian.’
Henry shot her a warning look.
There were times when she couldn’t help but stick up for herself. This was one of them, though there was more than one reason for doing so. Being contentious helped her overcome the queasiness in her stomach.
She repeated what she’d already said. ‘Hitler is Austrian. I read it in the newspaper.’
‘That don’t mean they was right. Some big pot I ’ad in the back of the cab, who reckoned he worked for a newspaper, insisted that Hitler was Austrian, yet how can he be if he’s Chancellor of Germany, tell me that, eh?’
‘I told you. I read it in the newspaper.’
‘So you say,’ he muttered and looked away, not daring to meet her eyes.
Mary Anne exchanged a swift look with her son. Henry’s embarrassment pleased her. He had never learned to read. His father, of the same mind as his son, had not held with working men knowing how to read. In his opinion, being hard was all that counted.
‘I knows my place,’ he’d said, ‘and you should know yours.’
Henry had never voiced any regret about his lack of literacy in their courting days and although he’d initially succumbed to her lessons, pride and his father’s influence had eventually got the better of him. The army hadn’t helped. All men together back then, but nowadays his lack of learning festered like a hidden wound.
His face clouded. ‘What do women know?’ Shaking his head, he turned his attention back to the battle lines between the butter dish and the cruet stand. ‘Now! As I was saying.’
The cruet set advanced on the bread knife. ‘And this is that devil, Kaiser William—’
‘Wilhelm,’ Mary Anne corrected. ‘His name was Kaiser Wilhelm. And Hitler is Austrian. It says so in the paper.’