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Authors: Ruth Hamilton

That Liverpool Girl

BOOK: That Liverpool Girl
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For Billy Guy, who walks my dogs and reads every word I write, though not simultaneously.

This book is a celebration of Liverpool’s spirit, her defiance and determination through some terrible years. With respect and pride, I praise a tough generation who managed to remember to laugh.

If I have shifted things round a bit, forgive me. After thirty-one years in my chosen city, I beg some licence. In this place my forebears arrived from Ireland a hundred years ago. They moved inland, but I returned here with my sons in 1979. I have never regretted that journey.

God bless Liverpool, and God help my football team.


























‘She’s got one. She’s always had one. Her face might favour a stewed prune some of the time, like, and she’s a cut above us lot, but she’s definitely got one in that there posh front room.’ Nellie Kennedy leaned against the door frame and stared across at number one, Rachel Street. ‘Her mam and dad had it before her, and I’ll swear Henry Brogan picked up the wotsname to be charged up last week.’

‘Wotsname? Do you mean the battery?’

Nellie awarded Kitty Maguire a withering look. Kitty, at the grand old age of twenty-nine, owned very few teeth, a pale grey face, virtually no flesh on her bones, three kids and a husband who could take gold if beer drinking ever became an Olympic sport. ‘I’m not asking her,’ Kitty said. ‘She looks at me as if I should get back under a stone. No, I’m not asking her about nothing. She never talks to nobody.’

‘Neither am I asking her.’ Nellie shook her turbaned head. ‘At a time like this, I think she should come out and tell us what’s been said. It’s like what you’d call a neighbourly duty in my book. She knows we’re all stood here waiting like cheese at fourpence.’

There was only one wireless in the street, and it belonged to her at the end. Her at the end was a spinster of indeterminate years who had stayed at home to care for her parents, a pair of sad, colourless people with not much to say for themselves towards the end of their lives. After running a Scotland Road shop for many years, they had eventually retired, shrunk, and dropped like autumn leaves, but in the middle of winter. Arthur and Sarah Pickavance had shuffled off within days of each other, leaving Miss Pickavance to return to her position as ironer in a Chinese laundry, a situation that appeared to give her airs, as she never got dirty.

Few could understand why she remained in the Scotland Road area, because she wasn’t a Catholic, wasn’t Irish, and wasn’t poor by most standards in these shabby parts. Her clothes were always nice, since she got them done at work, and she had proper furniture with a sofa and matching chairs in the parlour. It wasn’t easy to see into her parlour, as thick lace curtains covered the bottom half of the sash window, while an aspidistra blocked more of the view, but she kept herself nice. And she did have matching furniture. In an area where a proper pair of boots with laces was a novelty, two brown chairs and a brown sofa were wealth indeed. She was supposed to have carpet squares and a real canteen of knives and forks, plus a proper tea set with saucers, cups and plates decorated with red roses and a bit of gold on the rims.

Nellie Kennedy, eyes and ears of the world, had been heard to opine on many occasions that Hilda Pickavance thought she was too good for round here. ‘One of these days she’ll have her nose that far up in the air, she’ll come a cropper under the muck cart, and that’ll be her done.’ But today Nellie wasn’t saying much. Nobody was saying much, because a heavy, if invisible, weight rested on the shoulders of every man and woman in Britain. Eleven o’clock had come and gone; at approximately eleven fifteen, Chamberlain was going to broadcast. This was not a good day for anyone of a nervous disposition.

Rumours were rife, and had been developing with increasing speed for a month or more. The chap who sold newspapers door to door said he’d heard that France was joining the anti-Nazi stance, that Australia, New Zealand and Canada were loading up ships, while America couldn’t make up its mind because it didn’t need to be bothered worrying about Europe. Ernie Bagshaw, who had just one eye and a limp from the Great War, was going about telling anyone who would listen that the Luftwaffe had already carpet-bombed London, so there’d be no broadcast. But no one listened to him, as he was just being his usual cheerful self.

‘My Charlie thinks Hitler’ll win,’ announced Kitty. ‘We’ll all be walking daft and talking German by next year, he says.’

‘Hmmph.’ Nellie’s ‘hmmphs’ were legendary. She didn’t need to use words, because Kitty Maguire knew what was going through her next-door neighbour’s mind. Charlie Maguire was mad and pickled. He was mad enough to have taken a sample of his wife’s urine for testing in order to hide his drinking, and pickled enough to believe the doctor when told he was the first pregnant man in that particular area of Liverpool. Yes, the ‘hmmph’ was adequate, because Charlie definitely wasn’t.

‘We could have let the kids go on Friday,’ Kitty said. ‘Maybe we should have sent them on the trains, Nellie.’ She left unspoken the reason for the corporate if unspoken decision not to send the children on the evacuation trains. Asked to provide a change of clothing, pyjamas or nightdresses and extra underwear, the mothers of Scotland Road were stymied, since few children owned much beyond the rags on their backs. What was more, many from large families carried wildlife about their persons, and a visit to the local bath house would have proved expensive.

But Nellie agreed with Kitty’s statement. All they had were their kids, and Scottie was near enough to the docks to warrant flattening by Hitler’s airborne machines. ‘I know, love,’ she sighed wearily. ‘And if wishes were horses, beggars would ride. But you’re right, because if London cops it, we’ll be next. No way will Liverpool be left out of this lot.’ Nellie was old enough to remember the last bit of bother. It had left her widowed, and the intervening twenty years had been beyond hard. Life was still far from easy, because Nellie shared a house with her daughter, also widowed, and four grandchildren, three of whom were wild, to say the least. Half the time, nobody knew where the lads were, and the other half, Nellie, her daughter and her granddaughter wished they’d leave the house and get up to whatever they got up to when nobody knew where they were, because of the noise.

‘Did you get the horse back to the carters’ yard?’ Kitty asked.

Nellie sighed heavily. ‘Jimmy Leach came for it. I don’t know what our Bertie was thinking of. A carthorse is a bit big to hide in a back yard.’ She shrugged. ‘He was going on for days about wanting a horse, and he took one. Thank God it was docile. But getting to the lav wouldn’t have been easy, not with that great big article tied to me mangle.’ She sighed again. ‘Trying to hide a nineteen-hand carthorse between a tin bath and a mangle. I ask you.’ She shrugged.

‘You have to laugh, though,’ said Kitty.

‘Have you? With what’s going on in Germany, I can’t even manage a smile these days. Ooh, look. I don’t believe it.’ The lace curtain in number one had disappeared, the sash window was being raised, and a wireless had taken the place of the aspidistra. Drawn like bees to pollen, adults and children began to congregate until the small crowd outside number one was at least four deep and two houses wide. No one said a word; even babies sat silently while waiting for their fate to be decided. Hilda Pickavance fiddled with a knob till she found the right station. She turned up the volume as high as it would go, then stood next to the instrument, hands folded, head bowed, as if she waited for Holy Communion. The broadcast begin at eleven thirteen precisely.

And they heard it. No one spoke or moved while the Prime Minister made a brave effort to hide sorrow and bitter disappointment. His little piece of paper, the one that had fluttered in the breeze only months before on cinema screens, was now all but screwed into a ball and deposited in the rubbish cart. ‘This country is at war with Germany.’ He asked for God’s help to be given to the righteous, then went away to do whatever Prime Ministers did at times like this. The crowd emitted a synchronized breath before beginning to disperse. War. Husbands, fathers and brothers would disappear, and some would never return.

It was ridiculous. On a beautiful late summer morning, everybody’s life changed in the space of a few minutes. Even here, where poverty was king, sunlight washed over the houses, birds sang, and fluffy white clouds drifted across a perfect sky. Good weather was one thing that didn’t happen just to the rich. Good weather came from God, and He gave it to all His children.

The stunned silence continued. Although shelters were being built and children moved up and down the country in search of safety, the news remained incredible. Should they have let their kids go, and bugger the shame that accompanied poverty? What now? In every female heart, a little devil prayed for their menfolk to be declared unfit to serve. If they weren’t well enough to be picked for work on the docks, surely they could not be expected to defend their country?

Nellie Kennedy, as tough as old hobnailed boots, began to cry. She sank to the ground, where she was joined by Kitty, her neighbour of several years. No longer young, no longer as resilient as the front she presented, Nellie felt she couldn’t take any more. She’d been on the planet for only fifty-odd years, yet she felt ancient, worn out and unbelievably sad. It was happening again. It wasn’t supposed to happen again.

‘Come on, queen,’ whispered Kitty. ‘Don’t let go. We’ve got to hang on, girl. No point in giving up before we’ve even kicked off, eh?’

The onlookers moved closer, unwashed bodies and dirty clothing removing the earlier freshness of the day. But they soon cleared off, because a wailing sound invaded the area, a noise to which they would need to become accustomed for years to come. They scattered, leaving Nellie and her neighbour on the cobbles.

Hilda Pickavance came into the street to break the habit of a lifetime. ‘Mrs Kennedy,’ she said. ‘Would you come into my house, please? I think the siren’s just for practice. Would you kindly come in too, Mrs Maguire?’

Kitty shook her head and walked away. Much as she would have loved to get a glimpse of the matching furniture, she had to go back home and see what her children were up to. Did they have their gas masks? Was this really just a practice on the sirens?

But Nellie allowed herself to be led away. For the first time ever, she would be able to report properly on the state of Hilda Pickavance’s home. The fear and sadness remained, but she would shortly find distractions.

BOOK: That Liverpool Girl
10.07Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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