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Authors: Marie Maxwell

Tags: #Sagas, #Fiction, #General

Gracie (6 page)

BOOK: Gracie
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Gracie hated her mother for sending her away so rapidly with no time for any discussion and no say in her own fate and that of her child’s; she resented her father for not intervening even though she knew deep down that he had no more say in the matter than she herself did, and it upset her that her sisters didn’t understand why she disappeared without a word, never to be a part of the family again.

Gracie had seen a few other girls disappear for a while and then return thinner, sadder and tight-lipped about where they’d been. Everyone guessed they had been to St Angela’s but no one ever spoke about it. It was the bogey-man that had to be avoided at all costs.

Father Thomas had been as kindly as he could be with Dot McCabe standing close beside him and had presented the stay at the home as the only solution for her predicament. Gracie would stay there until the baby was born and adopted, and then she could return home to continue her life with her reputation intact, with no one ever knowing that she had fallen by the wayside.

It had all sounded almost reasonable, until the moment she had been led through the doors of the building that looked just like a large country house from the outside.

But inside the home had been another story altogether.

FIVE
Summer 1954

With butterflies that felt the size of blackbirds flapping away inside her stomach, Gracie wandered around the guest lounge at the Thamesview Hotel several times, looking at and touching everything. She ran her fingers along the edge of the marble fireplace, moved a chair a fraction and carefully straightened the new green velvet curtains that framed the sash windows of the room that was going to host her wedding reception. It wasn’t a huge space, but it had a beautiful view out across the estuary and was big enough for the limited number of guests they had invited. Ruby had made good her promise to host their wedding breakfast; the ceremony was to take place in the church just up the road in Shoebury and then the informal reception was being held back at the Thamesview Hotel afterwards.

As Gracie looked around and pondered, she found it hard to believe that in just three days’ time the wedding she had long anticipated would be happening and that she would soon be Sean’s wife. It had only been a few short months since their engagement at the beginning of the year but everything to do with the day was organised down to the last detail, including her beautiful dress that was hanging in wait on the back of the bedroom door.

Gracie tried to calm her pre-wedding nerves by thinking of the occasion rather than the personal aspect of getting married but still she could feel the nerves in her stomach.

After a final look around she closed her eyes and tried to imagine the complex group of invited family and friends in the room together, hopefully laughing, chatting and celebrating her and Sean’s marriage.

Gracie McCabe was hoping against hope that she was making the right decision in marrying Sean Donnelly.

She still felt wary about the two families meeting and how they would all interact, but she was less concerned about her own family being at the wedding after their meeting with Sean had gone so well.

Gracie had been so cautious and nervy when they had arrived at the front door, but her father had immediately welcomed Sean, and encouraged her mother to do likewise. And then Gracie had watched in awe as her new fiancé had turned on the charm and her mother had softened in a way she had never seen before; the normally fierce and abrupt woman practically melting in front of her. It had certainly been an eye-opener to see the feminine side of her mother and it made Gracie smile every time she thought about it. Fred McCabe had been his usual amiable self and her sister Jeanette had giggled girlishly and blushed at Sean’s humorous flattery. Her other sister Jennifer had stayed unobtrusively in the background looking disinterested but despite that Sean had made every effort to charm her and include her in all the conversations.

‘He could charm the birds out of the trees, that one …’ Dot McCabe had said under her breath as they were leaving and Gracie thought that was the nearest thing to a compliment her mother could have uttered. For the first time in all those years she allowed herself to think there was a possibility of a truce between them.

Gracie had been so relieved at the successful outcome, and so buoyed by its success, that it had been a bit of a shock when they’d made the journey to Ireland and she had discovered Sean’s mother was a completely different kettle of fish to the jolly mammy that he himself had described to her.

The instant they had turned up at the Donnelly family home on the outskirts of Dublin, Gracie had realised that she was in for a rough ride. His mother, father, sisters, their respective husbands and some of the nephews and nieces were all waiting outside in a reception line on either side of the garden path and while Sean had excitedly bounced along and said hello to them all, Gracie had been left behind to face a maternal inquisition.

Gracie had done her best to be as charming and receptive as Sean had been to her family but when it came to Sean’s mother she knew immediately that the woman had taken against her on principle. The three days spent in Dublin had been a nightmare for Gracie but she’d survived it by telling herself it wouldn’t have to happen often as they all lived such a long way away.

His mother Rosaleen, two of his sisters and his cousin Patrick were arriving from Ireland the day before the wedding and would be staying at the Thamesview, along with Babs and George Wheaton, Ruby’s foster family from her time in evacuation, and their adopted daughter Maggie, who was going to be a bridesmaid alongside Ruby, her birth mother.

Gracie’s parents and twin sisters were going to be at the wedding, as well as Ruby’s boyfriend, Johnnie Riordan, and a few friends from the Palace.

Everything was in order.

Mrs Sean Donnelly. Get down off the shelf, Miss Gracie McCabe, you’re going to be Mrs Sean Donnelly. You’re going to be a blushing bride …
she sang to herself tunelessly as she twirled around in an imaginary waltz across the room and through the doorway, into the reception area. The hotel was eerily empty of ordinary guests, but each room would soon be occupied with the family members and guests who were travelling a distance. Gracie just hoped that everyone would get along for that one day.

As she noted the unusual silence in the building Gracie wondered again at the kindness of her friend Ruby Blakeley, who had forgone four full days of bookings in her hotel to allow room for their wedding guests.

‘Ruby …’ she called. ‘Ruby, where are you? Do you want a cuppa? I’m just going through to the kitchen to make one.’

Ruby put her head out the door on the far side of the hotel reception area and smiled at Gracie.

‘I’m still in the office and yes please, I’m gasping in here. I really wish I could conquer this typewriting lark …’ Ruby said. ‘Actually, shall we go and sit outside, make the most of this very strange peace and quiet? It’s almost spooky, it’s so quiet. This is the first time since I came here that there hasn’t been at least one guest in the building. Even in winter there’s usually someone.’

‘I know. It’s sort of scary …’ Gracie ran across the lobby. ‘Actually, I’ve an even better idea. Let’s go out for the afternoon. No one’s due to turn up until tomorrow evening so we could go and do the things we used to do when we first met, have some fun instead of sitting here all alone, twiddling our thumbs!’

‘Oh yes. I vote for ice cream for lunch and chips for tea, but not too much – you have to fit into your dress on Saturday!’ Ruby laughed. ‘I’ll finish off in here and for once we can just go out and lock up. I’ve had a notice printed for the door to say we’re closed until Monday so we can give it a trial run.’

‘Great. I’ll go and find Henry and let him know he’ll be behind locked doors all alone with the telephone!’

Half an hour later the two friends giggled like schoolgirls as they ran down the steps of the hotel and crossed the road to the promenade.

‘Where shall we start?’ Gracie asked.

‘Kursaal, of course,’ Ruby said. ‘But no more eyeing up the handsome young men who work there, you’re going to be a married woman come Saturday …’

‘But there’s no harm in looking, is there?’ Gracie said mischievously. ‘I mean, who can resist a glimpse of muscle on the arms of a fairground boy?’

‘I suppose not, as it’s a bit of a custom when we go there,’ Ruby grinned as they linked arms and strolled in the direction of the town. It was a perfect day for an afternoon off; the sun was shining, the sea was glistening and both young women were happy in each other’s company.

They walked slowly all along the promenade until they got to the entrance to the Kursaal amusement park; then Gracie and Ruby ran inside, giggling as they raced each other along the path to the first ride. They then slowly made their way around the park in exactly the same way as they had when they had first met in 1946, just weeks after they had both given birth to their first-born but illegitimate babies.

A couple of hours later they stumbled over to the grass that edged the main area of the Kursaal amusement park and fell down in tandem. They were laughing fit to bust after three consecutive rides on the rumbling rollercoaster which had whipped their skirts, blown their hairstyles to smithereens and left them both with bright red cheeks and white knuckles.

‘That was such fun, Rubes,’ Gracie spluttered. ‘We’ve had some good times here together, haven’t we? I hope this isn’t going to be the last time we have fun, what with me getting married and you and Johnny being a real couple all bar the shouting …’

‘Of course it’s bloomin’ well not going to be the last time!’ Ruby said. ‘I tell you what, we should make a pact. Every year on this date we’ll have a day out together where we do stupid things and pretend we’re still silly single girls, even if we’re not. No husbands, no children, just us two.’

‘Oh yes, yes, yes! We’ll meet exactly here on the grass …’ Gracie looked at her wristwatch. ‘At noon, every single year from today, even if we do see each other every day between now and then. Agreed? We’ll call it our Silly Day, even when we’re sixty and decrepit. God willing, of course.’

‘Agreed. God willing,’ Ruby said as she held out her hand. Gracie took it and they marked the agreement with an exaggerated handshake. ‘Now, what next? Shall we walk the pier and have an ice cream before we go back? Big day coming up on Saturday and as the bride you need all the beauty sleep you can get.’ Ruby laughed and pulled a face.

‘As my chief bridesmaid, so do you … especially as we’re both getting on a bit now,’ Gracie said cheekily.

‘Speak for yourself, you’re nearly four years older than me!’

‘You don’t have to remind me; that’s why I was so keen to get that ring on my finger before I really was an old maid. I could see myself turning into Leonora before long.’

Savouring the warm summer sunshine, the two women walked slowly along the seafront from the Kursaal to the pier, talking all the way. They stopped at the boating lake and watched for a while but decided against taking a boat out.

‘Shall we walk down the pier or get the train?’ Ruby asked when they got there.

‘How about we walk to the end and then get the train back?’

‘Okay, chips on the pier and then we can get an ice cream and sit on the beach, it’s such a nice day.’ Gracie said. ‘This will probably be our last real gossip for ages.’

Despite the fact that Gracie would still be working for Ruby at the Thamesview she would no longer be sharing the flat and her life with her and, despite being her best friend, Ruby would no longer be her nearest and dearest. In a few days’ time Sean would take her place, and their lives would take separate paths as a result. Thinking about this, Gracie felt sadness and happiness combined.

‘Okay. Now we’ll go and sit on the sand, like we did that first day …’ Ruby laughed as they queued at a kiosk to buy their ice creams after they arrived back at the pier station. ‘I can tuck my skirt in my knickers and if we wait for the tide to go out we can go paddling in the mud.’

‘Oh yes.’ Gracie shrieked with laughter. ‘Remember that day when I slipped and we had to go back and face the disapproval of Aunt Leonora? I thought she was going to ban me from the hotel forever.’

‘She did grumble a lot, I know, but I think that deep down she was envious of us,’ Ruby said thoughtfully. ‘In her head she would have loved to be out and about being reckless and silly, but she just couldn’t do it. It was all there inside her but she just couldn’t relax enough to let it out. Sad really …’

‘Yeah – I reckon she grumbled because she felt she had to, but actually she bloody enjoyed all the adventures through us without having to loosen her stiff upper lip!’ Gracie smiled.

‘I really miss her,’ Ruby sighed and looked out at the water. ‘She was so good to me. She didn’t even know me but she took me in and let me live with her … I know I moaned about her sometimes but I loved her. I think she must have felt likewise or she wouldn’t have left me Thamesview.’

‘Of course she did, and she left you the hotel because you loved it as much as she did. It was her baby – she gave it to you because she knew you’d take care of it.’

‘Oh, that is such a nice thing to say, Gracie Grace …’

The two young women chatted nostalgically as they walked along, ice creams melting over their hands, looking for somewhere where there weren’t too many other people, where they could sit and reminisce. Eventually finding a spot which wasn’t crowded with day-trippers, they sat on the edge of a narrow strip of pebbly beach that was further away from the Golden Mile of arcades and slot machines.

Tucking their skirts tight under their bare legs, Gracie and Ruby sat down side by side and finished their ice creams in companionable silence, before leaning back and turning their faces to the sun.

After several minutes’ silence, there was a crunching on the pebbles behind them.

‘Excuse me, you two,’ a very correct female voice suddenly said behind them. ‘You don’t mind if we sit here, do you? It’s such a nice spot, away from the noise of all those screaming little kiddywinks further back that way.’

BOOK: Gracie
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