Authors: Margaret Dickinson
Tags: #Fiction, #Sagas, #Historical, #Romance, #20th Century, #General
As they boarded the car to begin their journey, Peggy proved to be a disciplined taskmaster.
‘First, we make sure that the seat backs are positioned correctly.’ The trams only travelled backwards and forwards – they couldn’t turn round. The motor-man controlled the tram from either end and the backs of the seats flipped over so that passengers could always travel facing forward. ‘And make sure the cleaners have done their job properly.’
Rose followed Peggy up and down each aisle, glancing to each side. She loved the interior of the tramcar with its plush green-patterned seats in the lower car and red leather seats upstairs. On the lower deck at both ends stairs curved upwards behind where the motorman stood at the controls.
‘Passengers should get on and off at the opposite end to wherever the driver is. And remember,’ Peggy warned as they moved off, ‘when the car’s full, you put the rope across and shout, “Another one behind.” You’ll get some abuse, but just smile and never, ever, get involved in a slanging match with a passenger.’
For the first ten minutes Rose found it hard to concentrate; Bob was so close and she was hard pressed not to keep glancing towards him. But, as the car began to fill up with passengers, her mind was fully occupied in punching tickets, taking the correct fare and giving change. By their first relief, the huge money bag she’d been given was heavy with takings.
‘This is killing my shoulder,’ Rose moaned.
‘You’ll soon get used to it.’ Peggy laughed as Bob joined them in the mess room for a welcome cup of tea. ‘Let’s just hope when you make your waybill out tonight, everything tallies.’
‘It won’t,’ Bob said, ‘but don’t worry about it. Mr Bower is lenient with trainees.’
But Rose wasn’t so sure. The job she’d hankered after wasn’t as easy as she’d thought. She watched her sister with growing admiration. It was wonderful how Peggy seemed to know which poor old lady really needed a hand on and off the tram and which was putting it on. She hadn’t known her older sister could engage in banter with the men and fend off the advances of the cheekier ones.
‘Coming out with me tonight, darlin’?’ one smartly dressed young man asked Peggy as he hopped on to the tram and refused to leave the platform to take a seat. ‘Ah’ve got summat ah’d like to show thee.’
‘Sorry, love. I’m washing my hair.’
Nonplussed, the young man winked saucily. ‘What about ya mate here, then?’
‘That’s my sister and she’ll be helping me wash my hair. Now, if you’d move down the car, love, and let the other passengers get on, we’ll be on our way all the quicker.’
Rose could hardly hide her laughter, but then she was plunged once more into punching tickets for all those who had just boarded the car and remembering to shout out the next stop.
When they reached the terminus, Peggy reminded her to go down the line of seats, flicking the backs over.
‘Clever, isn’t it? And what’s the other thing you must remember?’
‘Oh heck – I don’t know,’ Rose moaned, looking so woebegone that Peggy laughed. ‘To carry your gas mask, silly.’
‘Not something else to hang round my neck!’ Rose sighed and then grinned. ‘But half the passengers getting on the trams aren’t carrying their gas masks.’
‘That’s no excuse,’ Peggy said primly. ‘Mr Bower says we must set a good example.’
‘I wonder how poor Alice is managing,’ Rose thought while she counted out change as the tram swayed around a corner, only to be told that she’d given a penny short.
Alice, it seemed, had had a better day than Rose. Under the tutelage of an experienced and patient older man, she’d got the hang of everything very quickly. ‘Although I nearly sat on one feller’s lap when the car lurched. He didn’t seem to mind, though.’
‘I bet he didn’t.’ Rose laughed wryly.
‘And my figures tallied,’ Alice smiled triumphantly.
‘Well done, you,’ Rose said and added mournfully, ‘I wish mine had.’
‘See you tomorrow.’ Alice smiled as they parted company outside the depot.
‘That’s the most cheerful I’ve seen her,’ Rose confided to Peggy. ‘She’s had a bit of a hard time of it. But it looks like she’s taken to a clippie’s life like the proverbial duck to water.’
‘And so will you,’ Peggy said, linking arms. ‘Come on, let’s catch the tram home.’
As they sat down with a sigh and Rose eased her aching feet out of her shoes, she noticed that the conductress passed by them and didn’t ask for their fares.
‘Don’t we pay?’ Rose whispered to her sister.
‘We never charge other staff and you’re one of us now.’
Rose felt a warm glow. At last, she was a real clippie.
At the beginning of December Rose brought home a copy of
‘Here you are, Gran, I thought you’d like to read this. The editor says we ought to spend at Christmas – not save.’
Grace frowned, but picked up the magazine and leafed through the pages. Then she began to read. After a moment, she chuckled. ‘He’s telling you to give National Savings Certificates or War Bonds as presents.’
‘Read on, Gran.’ Rose grinned. ‘“Or on ordinary purchases”, he says.’
‘Encouraging a lot of folk, who can’t afford it, to be extravagant,’ Grace muttered. ‘Well, you’ll each get a War Bond from me, so that’s that.’
‘Eat, drink and be merry, that’s what I say, and show Hitler he can’t get us down.’
It had been a strange few months in the run-up to the first Christmas of the war. Whilst hordes of children had been evacuated from London and other big cities to the safety of the countryside, the anticipated bombing had not happened, so many had drifted back home.
‘There, you see, I told you so,’ Myrtle had said triumphantly. ‘If you’d sent me away, I’d have been coming back by now.’ Myrtle had flatly refused to consider being evacuated. ‘It’ll interrupt my education,’ she’d argued. ‘And besides, Gran says the cellar’s safe enough.’
But there were other things over which the family had no choice. Blackout regulations were in full force and economies were already being advised. Rationing had not yet started, but was threatened for early in the New Year.
‘Better make the most of it,’ Mary said. ‘We don’t know what might be happening by another Christmas.’
‘Oh, it’ll all be over by then,’ Rose said cheerfully.
‘Peggy, would you like to invite Bob and his mother to have Christmas dinner with us?’
Before Peggy could reply Grace butted in. ‘I think you’re forgetting that this is my house and I’ll say who we invite. I don’t want a lot of strangers in and out of the house on Christmas morning. It’d be like Victoria Station. Can’t we have a bit of peace for once?’
‘Oh, but Mother, Bob and Mrs Deeton are all on their own. I thought it’d be nice for them – and for Peggy.’
‘No doubt it would,’ Grace said shortly.
‘And I thought we might ask Mr Bower,’ Rose put in, mischievously adding fuel to the argument. ‘He’s a widower and, from what he said yesterday, he’ll be all on his own.’
‘He’s got a brother, who’s a farmer in Derbyshire,’ Peggy said. ‘Someone said he usually goes there for Christmas.’
‘He has – but his sister-in-law is ill in hospital and he says his brother’s at his wits’ end to cope anyway without having a visitor at Christmas.’
‘Oh, why don’t you invite them all?’ Grace snapped. ‘What about Letty and Tom Bradshaw from next door? I’m sure Letty would love to get her nose in.’
Rose’s mouth twitched. She knew her grandmother was being sarcastic, but, impishly, she pretended to take the old lady seriously. ‘Well, we could.’
Grace glared at her. ‘You’ll do no such thing.’ She paused and then added, reluctantly, ‘But I suppose you can ask the others. I don’t like to hear of folks being lonely at Christmas.’
Though she would never have admitted it, it was Grace’s biggest fear. Despite her constant grumbling about never having any peace in
house, in truth it was the last thing she wanted.
The only person who, surprisingly, did not seem too keen on the idea was Peggy. And Rose had mixed feelings. Though she longed to be near Bob, to talk and joke with him, she knew it would be a double-edged sword. She would have to watch whilst Bob made sheep’s eyes at her sister and it would be like a knife through her heart.
A knock at the door on Christmas Eve revealed Laurence Bower carrying something wrapped in cheesecloth. As he stepped across the threshold, he said, ‘Mrs Sylvester, I hope you will accept this as a gesture of my gratitude for your kind invitation to spend tomorrow with you. It’s a turkey from my brother’s farm.’
‘A turkey! Oh, how wonderful, but you shouldn’t really, Mr Bower . . .’
‘Please call me Laurence.’
‘And I’m Mary,’ she said, taking the bundle from him.
‘I’ve taken the liberty of bringing the ingredients for the stuffing. I hope I’m not being too presumptuous.’
‘Of course not. We were planning beef, but I was so worried it wasn’t going to stretch to enough for all of us. This is a godsend. It really is. Thank you so much.’
‘Please don’t mention it. You won’t believe how much I’m looking forward to tomorrow when all I was facing was another lonely day.’
‘You’re most welcome.’ Mary laughed as she added, ‘And not just because of the turkey.’
Grace and her three granddaughters looked up in surprise when they saw whom Mary was ushering into the room. ‘Do sit down, Mr Bower.’
‘Laurence, please.’ He glanced at the two girls who were his employees and smiled. ‘Just for Christmas,’ he added with an impish smile.
‘Would you like a glass of sherry?’ Grace offered, deciding to play the gracious host. This man had been good to her granddaughters and she didn’t want to appear churlish.
‘No, no, I won’t tonight. I have to go back to the depot – just to make sure everything’s all right. It’s been a busy day.’
‘Hasn’t it just,’ Rose remarked with feeling. ‘My feet are killing me.’
‘How’s she doing?’ Grace asked Laurence, gesturing towards Rose.
‘Very well.’ Laurence couldn’t keep the surprise out of his tone and the whole family laughed. For a moment, the man was embarrassed; he hadn’t meant it to sound so obvious.
‘I’ve surprised myself,’ Rose said generously, ‘never mind anyone else. And that first night when my ticket takings didn’t tally, I thought I was going to be sacked before I’d hardly started.’
‘There’s not many it doesn’t happen to the first day or two, but you’ve been spot on ever since and I hear very good reports from your motorman.’
Jack Wainwright was the tram driver with whom Rose worked the most. He was a middle-aged, married man with two children. The older one – the boy – was already in the army, and Rose was acutely aware of the burden of anxiety Jack carried daily. His daughter was coming up to school-leaving age.
‘I’m dreading her having to go out into the big wide world,’ he confided in Rose. ‘She’s a shy little thing. I wish she had more of your spirit, Rose. Girls need it, especially now. Goodness knows what sort of a job they’ll find her.’
Over the next few weeks Rose and her motorman talked a lot during their relief times and became good friends. She knew she could rely on him whenever she needed help or guidance. Laurence Bower could not have teamed her with anyone better. Now a pink tinge of pleasure coloured her face to think that Jack had spoken so highly of her to the inspector.
Christmas Day was a merry affair for the family. Peggy had brought down a box of Christmas decorations from the attic cupboard behind Myrtle’s bed.
‘These are starting to look a bit sorry for themselves,’ she said, pulling out crumpled coloured paper chains. ‘But I suppose they’ll have to do for this year.’
‘I’ve made some paper hats out of newspaper,’ Myrtle said, holding up a Nelson-shaped triangular hat.
‘Is that my paper?’ Grace asked sharply.
‘It’s yesterday’s, Gran, don’t panic.’
‘Less of your cheek, miss. I might not have finished reading it.’
‘You read them from front to back every morning, Gran,’ Rose said, sticking up for her younger sister.
Grace muttered and rustled the paper she was reading. ‘That’s as maybe, but she should ask first.’
‘Sorry, Gran,’ Myrtle said. She didn’t want to fall out with the old lady. She and her grandmother had a special relationship; they shared the same wry sense of humour and could always be relied upon to drop in a sarcastic remark at any opportunity. Whatever was happening, it was Grace and Myrtle who shared an amused glance.
Hester Deeton and Bob arrived armed with little gifts for each member of the family. ‘And I’ve made a cake,’ Hester said uncertainly. ‘I hope it’ll be acceptable.’
‘Acceptable, Mrs Deeton? It’ll be wonderful,’ Peggy assured her. ‘We couldn’t get all the ingredients to make our usual cake, though Mam has managed two puddings. There seem to be shortages already.’
‘I’d put things aside from the summer. It’s not hoarding,’ Hester added swiftly, in case anyone should think she was breaking the advice the authorities were already handing out and what would soon become law when rationing started in earnest.
Laurence Bower arrived just before lunch with a box of chocolates. As he handed them to Mary he said, ‘These are for all the family, but mind you pick out your favourites. You must have been working so hard to get everything ready for today.’
‘I’ve had help. Mother still does a lot of the cooking and the girls are very good.’
‘Still—’ Laurence looked into Mary’s eyes as he added softly, ‘You deserve a little treat.’ Laurence had never looked at anyone else since the death of his wife, but Mary was still a pretty woman with a slim figure and gentle brown eyes and Laurence found himself experiencing feelings he thought had gone forever. He’d lived a solitary existence for the last three years, but now he wondered whether, at forty-five, he was foolish to resign himself to a life of loneliness. He sat beside Mary at the dinner table and joined in the merry banter. Even Hester, after two glasses of sherry and with spots of colour in her cheeks, relaxed and for a brief time managed to put aside the many anxieties which life seemed to hold for her. Bob, sitting between Peggy and Rose, was the life and soul of the party. After lunch, when they’d all taken turns to help with the washing up – all except Grace, who everyone insisted should put her feet up – it was Bob who organized games and quizzes.