Authors: Monica Dickens
She lay awake and saw the square of window fill with the first no-colour between darkness and dawn. She smelt the freshening air and watched the light grow. The gulls had only just begun to cry, when she heard the bed creak in the next room, and the murmurs of the man and his wife getting up with the dawn.
She got up too and looked out of the window. She had seen dawn in London, gilding the chimney pots and tantalizing mean streets with an hour’s slanting glory, but she had never seen anything like this great rosy fan of rippled clouds that spread into the sky above the hills. It arched forward over the bay and was reflected in the stretch of wet sand and pools that waited for the tide. Beyond the harbour mouth the sea glittered, and on the horizon it was already blue day.
‘And this happens every day,’ thought Mrs Abinger. ‘Every day the same, yet every day fresh as the beginning of the world. That’s where it is.’ Awed, she went back to bed and slept until the fisherman’s wife brought her a cup of tea two hours later.
Miss Loscoe had slept at Bolt House after all. She had been difficult. She would not go with Mrs Abinger to the fisherman’s cottage, and she felt too queer to go alone into Queens-bridge. Matron, exasperated by the whole business, had shut herself up with her brawn mould and Humphrey and left them to do what they chose. So the two young nurses shared a room, quite content to giggle half the night in one bed,
while Miss Loscoe lay next door, stiff and straight as a martyred corpse under the jolly eye of Nurse Tillings’ young man, pinned on the wall above the black iron bed.
‘I never had a wink of sleep,’ she announced in the train going home. ‘You look as fresh as a daisy, Ellie, I must say.’
‘I slept like a top,’ beamed Mrs Abinger, who was nursing the baby like a statue of primitive motherhood, all arms and lap.
‘I don’t know how you could after what happened. I never want to go through such an experience again. Sleep? I was much too upset to get near it.’
‘Well, it’s come out all right now, hasn’t it?’
‘For some, I daresay. But I had to lie there thinking of your baby starting out in life with a cloud of tragedy over it.’ she gloomed.
‘Perhaps the children kept you awake,’ said Mrs Abinger cheerfully.
‘You never heard such a shindy as they made this morning. And the nurses – talk about clattering cans and heavy shoes! But it wasn’t that. I couldn’t have slept had I been in my grave. I couldn’t fancy a mouthful of breakfast this morning. My sister was quite upset.’
‘Poor soul,’ said Mrs Abinger, ‘she had a trying time of it yesterday. She is nice, Dot. I like her ever so much.’
Miss Loscoe took this for granted. ‘She’s the mainstay of that harum-scarum establishment, I can see,’ she said dauntlessly. ‘Why, if it hadn’t been for her knowing about the crucifix – ’
‘By the by, Dot,’ interrupted Mrs Abinger, ‘there’s no need to mention the little cross to George should you see him. You know how he is about such things; he thinks it’s superstitious. He won’t stand for Catholics.’
‘I shouldn’t dream of it,’ said Miss Loscoe. ‘I’m sure it’s no concern of mine. I was merely going to remark that if it had not been for my sister, we shouldn’t be straightened out yet.’
‘No, that’s right,’ said Mrs Abinger, glad of the chance to resurrect the toppled legend of Miss Loscoe’s sister. ‘She’s got a head on her shoulders all right. And she doesn’t have it too
easy, does she, with Matron so funny tempered? I’m sure I’d have walked out long ago.’
‘And let them down? She would never do that.’ Miss Loscoe cleared her throat, and looked severely at Mrs Abinger, daring her to challenge the coming lie. ‘My sister,’ she said, ‘told me that Matron had said this morning she didn’t know where they would be without her.’
Billy Moore hung round his mother’s dressing-table while she was trying to do her hair. ‘I want to tell you something.’
‘Get on with it then,’ she said, in the slight drawl which she had copied years ago from a girl at Roedean, and never lost. ‘And don’t fiddle with that scent bottle.’
‘I’m not. I want to tell you something. Mum-may – ’ His stories always took hours. ‘Well, you know Mrs Abinger.’
‘At the Corner Stores? I ought to, after eight years.’
‘Well, do you know, she’s got a baby. A girl one. She let me play with it when I went into the back-room to get some currants. And Mummy, I do wish we could have a baby like that.’
‘We’ve got one, darling. Surely that’s trouble enough? Leave that scent bottle
‘Yes, but Wilf’s a boy, and he’s ugly. And Tess is too old to play with. Mummy, I do think Mrs Abinger’s lucky. Her baby has much prettier clothes than ours.’
‘I don’t doubt it.’ Mrs Moore twiddled up a side curl, cocked an eye at her reflection, shook her head, and combed the curl out again. In the mirror, she saw a figure like Mrs Tittlemouse come into the room.
‘Here’s Nanny,’ she said. ‘It’s bedtime.’
‘I want you to read to me.’ Twice usurped in the nursery, Billy had to be demanding of his rights.
‘I’m going out, so it’s no use making that face. I never knew Mrs Abinger had a baby, Nanny,’ she said to the grey little old nurse waiting in the doorway. ‘I should have thought she was a bit old …’
‘So should I, ’m, but you’d be surprised what some women can manage. The Deaconess was forty-seven turned, when she had her twins.’
‘It seems so funny we didn’t know about it.’
‘It does indeed. But she’s stout at the best of times, and always being behind the counter, you see …’
‘When do you suppose she had it?’
‘It looks a good five-month baby to me.’ Nanny moved her lips calculating. ‘It will have been at the Easter, I daresay, when we were away.’
She saw Billy looking from one to the other of them, forming a question. His mother would have let him ask it, and given him a grown-up answer, but Nanny did not hold with that at five, or any age. With all her children, her answer to biological questions had always been: ‘Because.’
So she said: ‘Come along now Billy, do, and leave Mummy’s things alone.’
‘Nan,’ he said, going to her, ‘wouldn’t you like us to have a girl baby with bows and bobbles on its clothes like Mrs Abinger’s?’
‘Oh yes, I daresay. Oh yes, oh yes.’ She nodded her wispy head at him. ‘I haven’t enough to do already, I suppose. If you don’t come now, you’ll have to bath yourself.’
‘Well, I’d like that.’ He could always confound her harmless threats.
The Moores lived on the corner where the broad slope of Chepstow Villas swept indifferently across the beginning of the Portobello Road. The front of their house faced the respectability of May trees and green gates and steps hearthstoned before breakfast, but the back windows looked out over slated slum roofs all the way to the Kensal Rise gasometer. Chepstow Villas was the last outpost of Kensington before it degenerated into North Kensington, and the Moores’ house, being on the corner of the road that led to the slums, was the last outpost of Chepstow Villas. The contagion of the Portobello Road had infected it with a back-yard, instead of a garden like all the other houses along the winding slope to Bradley’s.
Most of her neighbours turned their steps that way, to the Mecca of Whiteleys and Arthur’s Stores, but Mrs Moore liked the shops in the Portobello Road. They were cheaper and more entertaining, and you never knew what you might find in the market.
She always bought her groceries from the Abingers’ shop which was on the third corner down the hill, where the Portobello Road began to get really animated. Mrs Abinger valued her custom, and sent her errand-boy up each morning to take the order. He did not always arrive, because he preferred bicycling downhill to uphill, so Nanny and the children would take their walk that way, not straight down the Portobello Road, but by the healthier detour of Ladbroke Grove. Wilfred’s pram had to be manoeuvred into the shop, for Nanny knew her Portobello, and while she was doing this, Tess and Billy would stump straight through to the back storeroom to prospect in the sacks and bins. Sometimes Mr Abinger was in there, muttering about in his long white apron that made him look like something out of
diving the little brass shovel into the Demerara sack, or taking the bones out of a side of bacon. The children would back out then, for he did not like them taking anything, although he was always picking at things himself. They had even seen him eat suet and shreds of raw bacon.
But most of the time he was in the front shop, taking as long to serve one customer as his wife did over six, because he talked so much. Mrs Abinger did most of the work in the Corner stores. Mr Abinger did most of the talking, and thought he did most of the work.
After she had heard about the baby, Mrs Moore took the grocery list down to the Corner Stores herself. She dawdled down the road, looking into shops, asking the price of things on stalls, buying two jelly mice for Billy and Tess, which she must give them when Nanny was not looking.
Margery Moore dawdled everywhere these days, while she was waiting for the war to be over and her husband to come home from sea. She had nothing much to do. She had a nurse and two maids, and she was discouraged from working more than
twice a week at the station canteen, because she muddled the other helpers. Tall and lazy and languid, she was made for reclining in a deck chair on a rose-scented lawn, or dispensing tea and raspberries and cream under a cedar tree; but no one had tea parties these days, and you could not sit out in the back-yard of Chepstow Villas, because it smelled of cats.
The glass door of the Abingers’ shop stood crosswise on the corner. It said
‘M ZAW TEE TEA’
in white enamel letters, and buzzed when you opened it. The buzzer did not stop until the door was shut again, and Mr Abinger would shout from behind the counter: ‘Shut that pestilential
A hundred times a day, he regretted having been persuaded into the buzzer by Mrs Abinger’s desire for progress. He had been meaning for months to take it off, but had not yet got round to it.
He was leaning on the counter eating dates and talking to a friend, when Mrs Moore wandered in, leaving the door open and the buzzer clamouring.
‘Shut that door!’ he called, without looking up. When he saw who it was, he condescended a sarcastic Thank you, but no Madam. He did not Madam anybody, even good customers like Mrs Moore. They need not give themselves airs just because they had a poundsworth of groceries a week and ran up a bill instead of paying cash. There was nothing of the hand-rubbing, what-can-I-do-for-you-to-day family grocer about Mr Abinger. There did not need to be, for most of his customers were penny-wise locals, who no amount of hand-rubbing would have flattered into buying a thing more than they wanted.
‘Good morning, Mrs Moore!’ Mrs Abinger, warm and busy in a tight blue overall, beamed across the shop. ‘Do take a seat. I won’t keep you a moment.’
Mrs Moore drifted along the shelves, touching and looking and taking things down to inspect the labels. She loved grocery shops; they made her want to buy all kinds of things she did not need.
‘What’s isinglass for?’ She reached for the packet and knocked down a bag of semolina, which burst, spilling on to the floor.
‘Please don’t handle the goods, Mrs Moore.’ Mr Abinger’s friend had gone now and he was titivating his show piece of cereals at the back of the window. ‘I shan’t be able to sell that bag now.’
‘It’s all right,’ said Mrs Moore, who was so used to being a nuisance in shops that she did not realize she was. ‘I’ll buy it.’
‘Now there’s no need to do that, Madam,’ said Mrs Abinger, flicking biscuits into a bag as if she were playing ducks-and-drakes. ‘I can always use it up myself, if need be.’
it,’ said Mrs Moore plaintively. ‘It’s one of the things on my list. I want that gelatine too, up there. Shall I take it?’
She could not reach the top shelf, so she stood on a lower one among the firewood, and stretching for the gelatine, lost her balance and staggered to the floor, with bundles of firewood tumbling round her feet.
‘Now I ask you.’ Mr Abinger lifted the flap at the end of the counter and came through to stack up the firewood with exaggerated nicety. ‘Now I ask you,’ he muttered. ‘Some people.’
Mrs Moore wasted one of her charming smiles on him. ‘I’m so dreadfully sorry,’ she said. ‘So stupid. Do let me help.’ As he did not answer, she wandered off into the back-room to see if she could find Mrs Abinger’s baby.
‘When you’ve finished, George,’ said one of the women at the counter, who was getting tired of waiting, ‘you might just get me half a pound of Cheddar, and a sweet pickle, if you have one.’
‘Ellie will serve you in a moment,’ he said, dusting off his hands. ‘I’ve got my window dressing. Can’t do everything, you know, though there’s some as would expect it. It’s an art, window dressing is; you’ve got to give your mind to it, same as any other brain work. That window pays for dressing, too. It’s as nice a little display now, as any you’ll see in the street. Shut that infernal
Bob, the lanky errand boy, picked up a case of groceries waiting to be delivered, and scuttled out, hooking the door shut with his foot.
‘Yes,’ went on Mr Abinger, when the buzzer ceased. ‘I’ll never
forget the time Ellie got loose in that window that Christmas I was laid up with my chest. Talk about everything but the kitchen stove! My word, you never saw such a conjumble.’
Mrs Abinger laughed good-humouredly. She had learned long ago that it did not pay to show you minded anything he said, lest he should nag on at it, like toothache.
‘Not that I’m saying it was her fault, mind,’ he said generously, ‘but you’ve got to be born with a gift for these things, same as any other art.’ He was leaning back against the counter now, his starched apron bib standing squarely away from his waistcoat, his eyes glazing with the inward look of the unstoppable bore.
‘Well, you might as well serve me, as stand there and talk,’ said the customer, who knew him well.
‘I don’t know what trade is coming to these days,’ he sighed, ‘when a man can’t do as he likes in his own shop. It’s get this, get that, all day long, till I sometimes feel like chucking up the whole business. It’s a mug’s game, I can tell you.’ He pushed himself upright and went back to the window, helping himself to a ginger biscuit from one of the glass-topped tins along the front of the counter.