Authors: Margaret Dickinson
Tags: #Fiction, #Sagas, #Historical, #Romance, #20th Century, #General
Grace was not keen on the match. She had planned to keep her only child under her thumb. Now Mary’s marriage might thwart Grace’s plans for being cared for in her old age by her daughter. But Grace could be devious and manipulative when it suited her and the Great War had played into her hands. It suited her to suggest that the young couple should live with the Booths. Daniel, after he’d retired, doted on the three baby girls, proudly wheeling them out in the cumbersome, second-hand perambulator around the streets where they lived. It was while he was out with six-month-old Myrtle in the pram one freezing December morning in 1924 that he suffered a fatal heart attack. The screaming baby, tipped over in the pram as Daniel fell, alerted passers-by and they rushed to help.
‘I know him,’ Mrs Parkinson, running out from her house, told the gathering. ‘It’s Mr Booth. Him ’as used to work at t’bank. He lives in t’next street. Oh poor, poor man. There, there, my little love.’ The woman had turned her attention to the wailing child, sensing that there was no more any of them could do for the man until an ambulance arrived.
‘D’you know where he lives then?’ one of the men asked. ‘Because if you do, I reckon you’d best take the child home and tell his folks.’
‘Aye, I will. Mary’ll come.’
‘Who’s Mary? His wife?’
‘No, his daughter. Mother of t’ little ’un here.’
‘Then you’d best fetch her.’
‘Has anyone sent for an ambulance?’
‘Yes,’ another man, panting from running, said, ‘I’ve just phoned from the box on the corner.’
‘It’ll be a while.’ The first man looked around at the gaping faces. ‘Can anyone fetch a blanket out? Keep him warm – just in case there’s any chance . . .’ His words petered out. They could all see that there was little hope for poor Daniel. No one there was qualified to pronounce him dead, yet they all feared the worst.
‘He’s a gonner I reckon,’ the man, who’d asked for the blanket, said as he laid it gently over Daniel. ‘But we’ve got to try.’
Mary came running, flinging herself to her knees beside her father. ‘Oh, Dad, Dad!’ She felt his cheek, but it was icy cold. She looked up, pleading with the faces above her. ‘Can you carry him? Bring him home?’
‘Best wait for the ambulance, love.’
‘Oh, but—’ Mary had begun to protest, but at that moment they heard the clanging bell of the ambulance and real help was at hand.
Having found out where they were taking him, Mary sped home pushing Myrtle, who, sensing something dreadful had happened, was still crying. Ted met them at the door.
‘Dad’s collapsed in the street,’ she panted.
‘We guessed that,’ Grace snapped from behind Ted. ‘How is he?’
Mary hesitated. ‘He – he doesn’t look good, Mother. The ambulance’s taken him to the Royal.’
Grace had shaken her head impatiently. ‘I told him not to go out. Too cold for the baby, I said, but would he listen? No. Just because she was yelling and wouldn’t stop and he thought he could get her to sleep. And now I suppose he’ll expect me to go traipsing to the hospital.’
‘I’ll come with you, Mother—’
‘You can’t leave me with the kids,’ Ted protested, limping back to the chair by the fire.
‘Peggy’s at school and if I feed and change Baby before I go—’
‘I can’t handle Rose. You know I can’t. She’s so wilful and naughty.’
‘She’s spoilt. That’s the trouble with that little madam.’ Grace nodded sagely. ‘You let your father spoil her, Mary. You—’
‘I’m not getting into an argument about that now,’ Mary snapped, anxiety making her unusually short-tempered.
Both Grace and Ted stared at her, but she lifted her chin and returned their glares. ‘When Dad might be – might be—’ With a sob she turned away. ‘I’m going to the hospital whether you like it or not. If you’ve any bother, get Letty from next door. She’ll help with Rose.’
And with that Mary squashed her hat onto her head, wound the thick woollen scarf around her neck and turned to her mother. ‘Are you coming or not, Mother?’
Grace stared at her for a moment and then dropped her glance. ‘You go. Find out how he is. I’ll go this afternoon – at visiting – if . . .’ She turned away, her attention caught by Rose. The four-year-old was climbing on to a chair and reaching across the table towards a jug full of milk.
‘Get down, you naughty girl. You’ll spill the lot.’ Grace smacked the child’s bare leg and Rose began to howl. Ted, in his chair, closed his eyes and groaned. With a sigh and a shake of her head, Mary left the house. It was over a mile to the Royal Infirmary from where they lived, but Mary walked quickly along Springvale Road, now and again taking little running steps in her anxiety about her father. Arriving at the hospital breathless and agitated, it took a while for her to find anyone who could tell her what had happened to him, but at last she was told by a sympathetic sister that the man, who’d been brought in after collapsing in the street, had been dead when he’d arrived.
‘I’m so sorry, my dear, and I’m afraid that we’ll have to ask you to identify him.’
Mary shuddered and bit her lip, but nodded bravely. She was trembling as the sister led her to where her father lay. He looked surprisingly peaceful – as if he was just asleep. She fancied that at any moment he might open his eyes and smile up at her. But poor Daniel would never again smile gently at his daughter and lovingly dandle his granddaughters on his knee. Or take them for walks. If only he hadn’t gone out that bitterly cold morning. Grace had been right and now Mary knew she’d never hear the end of it.
And she was right, for Grace’s first words on hearing that her husband was dead were to lay the blame. ‘If he hadn’t been wheeling out your crying baby, he’d still have been here. And now what are we supposed to do with three screaming brats and an invalid?’
‘Peggy’s no trouble, you know she’s not, and the baby’s a good little thing – most of the time.’ Mary hesitated to say anything about her middle daughter. Rose was a handful, there was no denying it and Grace certainly wasn’t going to. She sniffed and muttered, ‘But that Rose makes up for it. Well, I’ll tell you something, Mary. Now he’s not here to spoil her any more, she needs taking in hand and if you won’t do it – then I will.’
With that, Grace had turned away and retreated to her bedroom, leaving Mary to make all the necessary arrangements for Daniel’s funeral.
It was a sad day. Tears streamed down six-year-old Peggy’s face and even Rose, at four, seemed to realize that her beloved Grandpa wasn’t coming back. She cried loudly standing at the graveside and refused to be hushed.
‘Funerals aren’t the place for young children,’ Grace told Mary tartly. ‘You shouldn’t have brought them.’
Only a few months later, in the summer of 1925, Ted’s war wounds, which had never healed properly, became infected and he died of septicaemia five days before Rose’s fifth birthday. Mary mourned the loss of the man her husband had been before the war, but he had come back so very changed and had suffered so much that she couldn’t help feeling a sense of relief that he was now at peace. So, the household became a family of women with no man to influence the growing children or soothe the inevitable tensions between Grace and Mary.
They settled into a routine. Mary returned once more to her work at a department store in the city, leaving a reluctant Grace to look after the baby. Myrtle was a placid child and Peggy biddable and, at seven coming up to eight, did her best to be helpful about the house.
Trouble only erupted when Rose came home from school.
The three girls grew at an alarming rate and the furniture, which Grace had bought during the early years of her married life, soon began to look shabby. But she was not going to replace it whilst three young children rampaged through the house. Besides, there was little money for such luxuries as new furniture, but as the children grew older and more respectful of her belongings, Grace managed to pick up second-hand furniture in auction sales. Dressed in her dark coat and felt hat, she loved the excitement of bidding for a piece and winning. In the living room, where the family spent most of their time, two easy chairs were set either side of the range, which Grace resisted all attempts to have removed. The dining table and straight-backed chairs and the square of carpet – all had been shrewd purchases in the salesrooms. Even the wireless that stood on top of the sideboard, close to Grace’s chair, was second-hand.
Between them, Grace and Mary redecorated the rooms when they needed it, hanging serviceable green wallpaper in the living room.
‘It’ll not show the smuts from the fire as much as a pale wallpaper would,’ Grace had decreed.
‘But we saw a nice beige wallpaper we could put in the front room. We don’t use that room much,’ Mary pointed out. ‘Only on special occasions.’
Grace’s best front room had a three-piece suite covered in light brown moquette with a flowered motif. A crewel-embroidered fire screen stood in the tiled fireplace and a glass-fronted cabinet housed Grace’s precious china tea set, which had been a wedding present.
‘True,’ Grace had agreed, ‘though I like a fire lit in there now and again – specially in winter – to keep it aired.’
Mary was thrifty with her money, but was hard pressed to keep her three daughters clothed and shod. By the time dresses, coats and shoes reached Myrtle, they were so worn that Mary often had to relent and buy new ones for her.
‘So I get all the hand-me-downs,’ Rose grumbled, ‘and Myrtle gets new ones like our Peggy.’
‘I’m not buying you brand-new clothes.’ Mary smiled. ‘They’d still be torn and dirty in no time.’
‘That’s true.’ Rose had to agree and she did so with a merry smile. Rose was the tomboy of the family. Always laughing and always in some scrape or other. She played football and cricket with the boys next door rather than with dolls and tea sets.
‘I don’t know why you let her run wild, Mary. That girl will come to a bad end, you mark my words.’
So, whilst Peggy dutifully helped around the house and Myrtle, even from an early age, applied herself to her studies, Rose ran free. Peggy was of average ability academically, but she had no desire to stay on at school longer than the statutory leaving age. As soon as she could, she left school and found work in the tram workers’ canteen. Two years later Rose joined her and they worked side by side. The sisters were popular with their work mates and especially with the tram drivers and conductors, who flirted outrageously with all the canteen staff.
But there was one, quieter than the rest, who seemed to have his eye on Peggy. Bob Deeton, with light brown hair and hazel eyes, was a solid, dependable young man, who’d been selected to train as a driver earlier than most and he came into the canteen regularly. He always contrived to have Peggy serve him, though at first he seemed tongue-tied, too reticent to strike up a conversation.
‘I reckon he likes you.’ Rose nudged her sister.
‘Don’t be silly. He’s never even asked me out.’
‘Would you go, if he did?’
Rose glanced thoughtfully across the room to where Bob was sitting eating his dinner. ‘Well, I would, if he asked me.’
Peggy laughed. ‘Don’t be daft, Rose. He’s not your sort. Far too quiet for you.’
‘He’s shy, that’s all.’ Rose defended the young man. ‘I like that. I’m fed up of all the flirting that goes on here.’
Peggy gaped at her. ‘But you love the banter. I’ve heard you giving back as good as you get.’
‘Well – yes, I suppose I do, but I realize it’s all insincere. If I was to take any one of them seriously, they’d run a mile. No, Bob’s nice. He’s kind too. Have you seen how Mr Bower always puts the young trainee conductors with him? That’s because he knows Bob will look after them and help them.’
Peggy chuckled. ‘I think it’s you Bob ought to ask to go out with him, not me.’
Rose shrugged. ‘It’s not me he’s interested in.’
Peggy could not fail to hear the note of wistfulness in her sister’s tone.
Slowly, as time went on, Bob plucked up the courage to ask Peggy to go out with him. At first she refused him gently, but the young man was nothing if not persistent and the invitation was repeated every Saturday he was not on duty. For a while Peggy still resisted. But, in the end, her excuses sound lame even to her ears. At last she said, ‘Yes,’ and Bob almost danced around the canteen with delight.
‘Hello, Bob,’ Rose greeted him, when he arrived to take Peggy out for the first time. ‘Come on in. She’s still upstairs titivating, making herself beautiful for you.’
‘She’s already beautiful,’ Bob said gallantly.
‘By heck, you have got it bad,’ Rose teased as she ushered him into the living room. Myrtle was seated at the table, her schoolbooks spread around her. Mary was sitting with a pile of darning on her knee and Grace, closest to the fire, was reading a newspaper. The older lady was small and wiry. At home, she was always dressed in her pinafore, with her grey hair pulled severely back from her face into a bun in the nape of her neck. She wore round steel-rimmed spectacles, behind which her sharp, pale blue eyes missed nothing. In contrast, Mary took her pinafore off as soon as she’d finished the household chores. Her hair was cut short, with curls and waves close to her head and nothing – except the smart, close-fitting hat worn at a jaunty angle when she went out – was allowed to cover her hair.
‘This is our mam.’ Peggy gestured towards Mary and then nodded towards Grace. ‘And this is Gran. Don’t take any notice of her, her bark’s worse than her bite.’
Bob shook hands politely with the two women and sat down in the chair which Rose pulled out for him.
‘Like a cuppa, Bob?’ Mary asked, half rising from her chair.
‘No, no, please don’t trouble, Mrs Sylvester. We’ll be off as soon as Peggy’s ready.’
There was an awkward silence for a moment, whilst Mary bent over her sewing, Grace rattled her paper and eyed the young man over the top of her round spectacles. ‘Been working there long, young man?’
‘I started in the repair shop until I was old enough to train up to be a driver.’
Grace grunted and shook her paper again. ‘Mm.’
There was another awkward silence before Rose, trying to fill the gap, asked, ‘What are you going to see?’