Authors: Jenny Oldfield
âSurprise,' he said quietly. âWalter sent me out on a test run. I just put a new patch on the radiator.' He tapped the dashboard. âShe runs like a dream, touch wood.'
âHow did you know I was at work?' Sadie challenged. She still felt glad about getting one up on Turnbull, and she looked at her rescuer with a bright smile. She perched crosslegged on the leather seat, her hand on the armrest.
âA little bird told me,' he said. In fact, he'd overheard Walter discussing it with Rob. When they'd sent him out in the car, he'd seized the golden opportunity to meet her out of work with both hands, knowing that she would finish at midday.
She laughed. âThanks anyway. You got me out of a tight spot back there.' She wouldn't have put it past the small-minded Turnbull to have dragged her back to retype the dratted letter then and there.
âPay me back if you like.' Richie took up the joking tone. He was showing off with his driving, nipping in and out between omnibuses and lorries.
âHow's that?' She noticed him take a detour down towards the Embankment, but she didn't object. Their speed on the wide road thrilled her. Walter always drove well within the twenty miles per hour speed limit.
âCome along and see the new Chaplin picture.'
She shot him a look. âYou got a cheek!'
He shrugged. âYou can say no. It's a free country.' He shot on to Blackfriars Bridge and over the river.
Sadie looked down at the immense stretch of steel-grey water. Coal barges chugged upriver to feed the power-stations, a small cargo ship crossed their wake and headed out to sea. âSo it is,' she agreed. âI can say yes. I can say no.'
âWhich is it to be?' Richie overtook a trail of slow cars behind an old horsedrawn dray. â'Cos I'm sick of hanging around.'
Sadie remembered their last conversation at the depot and her tone altered. âI thought you said you was moving on?' she reminded him.
âSomething came up.' He glanced at her, held her gaze. âIs it yes or no?'
âThe new Chaplin, you say?' She knew that details of the invitation were a diversion. Yet she couldn't muster the courage for a direct reply.
âTonight,' he put in quickly.
âOh, no, I can't. Not tonight.' The visit to Hettie's Mission was firmly fixed. She noticed the flicker of a small muscle on the side of his jaw.
âRightio.' He swung left, thin-lipped, avoiding her eyes.
âBut maybe I could sometime next week!' She rushed into it after all. This was the last offer she'd get from Richie Palmer. He wouldn't stand being put off once again.
His eyelids flickered. âMonday?' he suggested.
She nodded. âBut not the Picturedrome this time. Let's go somewhere new.'
âYou choose,' he agreed. His voice, laconic as ever, betrayed none of the triumph he felt.
âMeet me out of work at six.' It was all fixed, for better or worse. Minutes later, he pulled up at the end of Duke Street and dropped her off to do her shopping in the market.
When Sadie finally arrived home with her basketful of Christmas novelties, she found the pub already crowded with men celebrating a home win, or else trying to escape the pre-Christmas frenzy of shopping for turkey and tree. Ernie and Duke, all hands to the pump, worked to slake their customers' thirst. George had been
called on to lend a hand. He was serving beer to a couple of men she'd never seen before; apparently friends of Bertie Hill, who stood in close conversation with them. At present, there was no sign of Annie.
With her basket over her arm, and her feet touching the ground for perhaps the first time since her decisive taxi ride, Sadie ran upstairs. She had about an hour to get ready before she, Hettie and Frances went off to the Mission. She burst into the living-room, totally unprepared for what greeted her.
Annie sat in her own chair by the fire, staring into its glowing depths. Frances stood uneasily to one side, twisting her wedding ring around her finger. Hettie was over by the window, as if trying to melt away to nothing.
âYou ain't gone and told her?' Sadie cried. She rushed forward to hug an unresponsive Annie. âYou ain't never gone and told her! Look what you done!' She hugged the slight, stiff frame. Annie was the only mother Sadie had ever known, and she could see how much they'd hurt her by dropping this terrible bombshell. Annie bowed her head on to Sadie's shoulder.
âWe had to, Sadie. It was for the best,' Hettie told her. âDon't think it was easy, for God's sake.'
âBut we ain't sure. We don't know nothing for sure!'
Frances lifted one hand to her mouth. âHe was here, Sadie. He was outside the Duke yesterday afternoon, only thank God Annie was out.'
Sadie drew a deep breath. She rested a cheek against Annie's fine grey hair. âLook, we ain't sure, Annie. Chin up. You never know.'
Annie spoke for the first time. âIt's him all right. I can feel it in my bones.' She managed to straighten up and sit with her shoulders back. âI should've known it was too good to last.' She looked round the room, from the sewing box on the table to the clock on the mantelpiece, to Duke's empty chair.
âDon't say that!' Sadie wanted to cling to her shred of hope. âWe'll go and find out all we can for you, Annie. You just gotta stay here and hope and pray.'
But Annie, who'd never shirked anything in her life, would meet trouble full on. That's the way she would have it; not to be caught unawares by a misplaced concern for her welfare. âFrances and Ett done right telling me, girl. And there ain't no way I can let you three take my trouble on your young shoulders.' She stood up. âIf anyone's staying here, it's Frances and you; Sadie. I'll go along with Ett and put everyone's minds at rest.'
Hettie came obediently forward.
âYou sure, Annie? You sure you're up to this?' Frances saw the determination on her stepmother's face. âIt ain't nice down at the Mission. Why not stick to our first plan? Let us go and talk to him.'
But Annie shook her head. âYou can do one thing for me, though.' She looked from Frances to Sadie. âYou two can go down and fetch Duke for me. And one of you can stay and cover for him in the bar.'
This time it was Hettie who objected. âAnnie, can't it wait? It'll only upset him something dreadful.' The thought of Duke in distress pushed her to the brink. âWait till we know for sure.'
But Annie stood firm. âJust go down and fetch him, there's a good girl,' she told Sadie. âIf old Wiggin is back in the picture, I gotta tell him now. Whatever happens, we ain't got no secrets between us, Duke and me.'
Duke steadied himself by holding on to the banister rail. He took an age to climb the stairs. It was the first time in their nine years together that Annie had called him away from serving behind the bar on a Saturday night.
âShe ain't ill?' He looked up at Frances, feeling his heart pound, grasping the rail.
Frances shook her head. âShe wants you to go see her in your room, Pa. She's got something to tell you.'
The muscles in his chest contracted, he took two or three short breaths and carried on his way. âAin't no need to drag me up at this hour, is there?' he grumbled. âDon't she know it's our busiest time?' He tried to trick himself into believing that this was a trivial problem, not worth abandoning routine over.
Frances saw his hand shake as he turned the handle to their bedroom door. She retreated into the living-room to wait with Hettie.
Annie sat on the double bed. She raised her head as she heard Duke come in. It was painful to her to see the misery of apprehension in his eyes. âCome and sit down over here, Duke.' She patted the white counterpane and smoothed a place where he should sit.
âYou ain't ill?' he said again.
Annie took his hand. âFit as a fiddle.' He was shaking. She must get this over with. âNo, but I got bad news. Are you ready for this, old son?'
Rob? Jess? The little ones, Grace and Mo? Their names sprang to mind. He imagined harm or danger to each one in turn. âIt ain't little Grace?' he said. His darling, his first grandchild.
Quickly Annie shook her head. âNo, it ain't nothing like that. It's us. Now, you gotta hear me out, Duke, then we can see what to do.' She cupped his hand in both hers and drew it close to her, shutting her eyes and rocking gently as she told him the news. âSomething, or I should say someone, has turned up. Now it might be something or nothing, we don't know yet; I gotta go with Hettie to find out. What it is, Duke, we think Willie's showed up again down at the Mission. Leastways, he says he's my old man, and I reckon I ought to go and find out.'
Duke sat quiet. No one was dying. No one was hurt. He was grateful for that. The actual news caught him stone-cold. âThat's a winder, that is.' He sighed.
âI had to tell you,' Annie stroked his lined cheek. âPoor Ett, and the others, they was in agony, but you and me gotta deal with it. What do you say?'
He nodded. âWhat do you think, Annie, is it him?' His voice stuck in his throat. He had to recollect where he was by concentrating on Annie's silver brush and comb set on the dressing-table. He caught sight of his and Annie's reflection in the mirror.
She sighed. âSomething tells me it is, yes.'
Duke's head sank to his chest. Beside him, Annie seemed small as a child, her eyes bright with tears, her chin up.
âIf it is him, we'll have to think what to do,' she urged.
The room seemed clouded, nothing would stay still even for a second. âGive me time.' He nodded, he made a supreme effort to raise his head and got to his feet. âOff you go with Ett, Annie.' He raised her up too. âShe'll look after you and make sure you come to no harm. I'll still be here when you get back.'
She didn't want to let go of his hand. “Course you will, silly old sod!' Annie brushed away her tears. âWhere else would you be? Now, just you get down them stairs in the bar where you belong!' She dabbed her eyes with the corner of her apron and went to the wardrobe to fetch her boots.
To Hettie, the streets had rarely seemed so mean and cold. Rob had volunteered to run her and Annie to the Mission. Just as well;
a freezing mist shrouded the shopfronts and dwelling places, the streetlamps failed to pierce the gloom.
âTurn left here.' Hettie leaned forward to tap Rob's shoulder. âYou just missed Bear Lane. What you playing at?'
He swore and took the next left, then left again. âCan't see a bleeding thing,' he complained. He checked in his overhead mirror, caught sight of Annie sitting ramrod-straight on the back seat, her black coat buttoned up, a wide-brimmed grey hat shading her face. âEverything all right back there?' he asked.
Annie nodded. âBlooming lovely. Keep your eyes on the road, young Robert. Ain't no use us having an accident right this minute, is there?'
Rob grinned. âThat's the spirit, Annie.'
âHm.' She took a deep breath as the taxi drew up outside the Salvation Army hostel. âReady?' she asked Hettie.
âReady as I'll ever be.' Remarking on how well her stepmother was managing, Hettie got out of the car and held out her arm.
Annie climbed out, then paused to thank Rob. âAin't nothing. Good luck!' He gave her a worried smile.
âWe'll need it. Ain't no point you hanging round here, though. Gawd knows how long it'll take, and you need to get off and earn some pennies.' She turned and stared up the forbidding stone steps. Then she took Hettie's arm again and marched straight up them. âDon't mess about now, Ett,' she warned. âOr I might just turn tail and run!'
Hettie took her swiftly past the huddled queues, straight through the entrance hall to the major's office. There Annie was greeted by the firm handshake of a tall, upright woman with long grey hair tied back in a plain bun, her blue uniform crisp and smart with its maroon epaulettes and brass buttons.
âMajor Hall, this is my stepmother, Annie .Â .Â . Parsons.' Hettie hesitated over the second name. âShe's come to see Wiggin, one of our admissions. He's in the sick bay.'
The woman checked down a list pinned on a notice-board. âAh yes, we admitted him yesterday afternoon. We had to bring the
doctor in. Yes, yes, of course.' She came out from behind her wide desk. Thank you for coming, Mrs Parsons.'
âI'm only doing my duty,' came Annie's stolid reply. She wondered whether the major knew about the strange circumstance behind her visit.
Major Hall nodded. Behind her spectacles her grey eyes shone frank and clear. âNot without a struggle, I imagine,' she said kindly.
Annie grunted. âHow is he?'
The major glanced at Hettie. âDon't expect too much,' she warned them. âThe doctor recommended rest, but he said recovery would be slow, if at all.' She waited for them to take this in. âThe drink has undermined him, I'm afraid. He's an old man, and he's not strong.'
âWill he know me?' Frown marks creased Annie's forehead. She clutched her black umbrella close to her chest.
âWhy not go up now and see?' Major Hall suggested. There was a businesslike quality in little Annie that she'd taken to at once. âRemember, God is with you.' She smiled. âA rod and staff, a comfort still.'
âHm,' Annie said again. âI need something along those lines, and that's a fact!'
Hettie glanced at the major's raised eyebrows as Annie turned and marched out of the office. âGood luck!' Major Hall nodded, thinking that Annie was the type of soldier they could do with in their ranks.
The Mission's sick-bay was less crowded than the main part of the building, and staffed by nurses in starched white uniforms. The inmates, stripped of their filthy rags, lay in clean white beds, many awake and staring at the high, arched ceiling. Some were moaning and calling out for help. Annie's determination met another test. She hated illness and decay; they made her afraid, then angry. She hated hospitals and doctors and the idea of not being able to look after yourself. It was a fate she herself intended to avoid at all costs.