Read The Cobbler's Kids Online
Authors: Rosie Harris
‘We’ll all be here until midnight unless you learn to work faster than this!’ Miss Linacre told her caustically. ‘The idea of having them typed isn’t merely for neatness, it is because it ought to be quicker than writing them out by hand. The speed you are working at it is taking twice as long.’
‘I’m sure I’ll get quicker with practice,’ Vera assured her.
‘Take no notice of her, you’re doing fine,’ Joan Frith whispered. ‘Let me show you how to use the tab stops, that will speed things up. Anyway, don’t worry about getting behind. I’ll give you a hand once I’ve got my own stuff completed.’
‘It wouldn’t be so bad if I didn’t have to break off so many times to deal with the switchboard,’ Vera told her.
‘It’s a pity we don’t get more calls so that it was someone’s sole job to deal with them,’ Joan agreed.
As the months passed the two girls supported each other more and more.
Vera liked Joan and soon realised that she had almost as hard a time keeping in Miss Linacre’s good books as she did.
No matter how hard they worked Miss Linacre found fault; she was quick to point out the slightest mistake and if it was something that had been typed then no matter how neat the correction she would make them do it all over again.
Vera was worried in case she didn’t get her rise, or, worse still, was told to leave because her work wasn’t satisfactory.
‘Don’t worry, it’s Mr Brown who makes those sort of decisions,’ Joan assured her.
Vera felt a whole lot more confident once she knew she had a permanent job and somehow Miss Linacre’s finicky ways no longer mattered quite so much. As she was given more responsibility she felt more and more that she was one of the team.
At Christmas, she was surprised by Miss Linacre’s generosity when she bought both her and Joan boxed sets of soap, bath salts and talcum powder. Mr Brown gave everyone a bottle of Port and even let them finish at midday on Christmas Eve so that they could complete any last minute shopping they might need to do.
Vera felt she was walking on air as she dashed home. It meant she would be able to go to Paddy’s Market with her mother for the vegetables and the chicken for their Christmas Dinner.
1925, she decided, was going to be a turning point in all their lives. Benny was happy at school and she and Eddy were both working so her mam need never go short of anything ever again.
Another couple of months and she’d be taking her shorthand and typing exam and once she’d passed that and was properly qualified she could get a job anywhere. Not that she wanted to change her job because she liked it at Elbrow’s.
The only worry she had these days, she reflected, was about her mother. She didn’t seem at all well. She didn’t look it either, although she rarely complained, except about Benny. He still loved school and he was so excited about what he did each day that he insisted on recounting all his adventures the moment he got home.
Most evenings there were boots or shoes to be delivered, so, because her mother complained that his prattling made her head ache, Vera took Benny along with her.
‘I do try to be patient when he comes rushing out of school, clutching the picture he’s drawn, or is intent on telling me about something he’s done in school,’ her mother sighed. ‘I long for you to be home from work though, Vera, to listen to all his exuberant chatter.’
The first week, Annie had tried leaving Benny in the shop when they got home hoping that Mike would be interested in Benny’s news, while she went to make a cup of tea. He had no time for what he termed ‘kids’ nonsense’, though, and speedily sent Benny scurrying back into the living room, threatening to ‘thump his skull’ if he came in there bothering him ever again.
Vera listened to her mother’s complaints about this in bewilderment. ‘Why did you send Benny into the shop? You know Dad hates any of us to go in there.’
Her mother sighed heavily. ‘Benny’s such a chatter-box, Vera. He’s bubbling over with energy when he comes out of school and it’s more than I can take. By that time in the day I’m so worn out that all I want to do is sit down and be quiet. After walking to the school to collect him, I’m exhausted.’
Vera frowned as she looked at her mother. She did look washed out, and she seemed to have lost so much weight, that she looked quite frail.
‘Perhaps you need a tonic, Mam,’ she said worriedly. ‘Why don’t you go and see the doctor and get yourself sorted out before the cold weather sets in. At the moment you look as though a gust of wind would blow you over.’
‘I think all the hot weather we’ve had has taken it out of me,’ her mother sighed. ‘If it’s a nice day on Sunday how about the two of us take Benny over to New Brighton for the day? It’s such a long time since we were over there, I think I’d enjoy it.’
Vera shuddered as she recalled the last time she had been on the other side of the Mersey, the day she’d followed her father and Benny. She’d never forget seeing her little brother sitting on one pub doorstep after another in the blazing sun, while her dad was inside enjoying a drink.
‘Why don’t we all go. A real family outing,’ her mother persisted. ‘We’d better see what Edmund and your dad think of the idea, but even if they don’t want to we can still go,’ she said cautiously. ‘Don’t say anything to Benny, let it be a surprise for him.’
Edmund looked taken aback. ‘Sorry, I’ve arranged to go out for the day with some of my mates from work,’ he told them.
Michael Quinn refused point blank. ‘Waste of good beer money,’ he snorted. ‘You must be out of your mind! If it’s a fine weekend the place will be packed with people making the most of the weather before winter sets in.’
‘That’s exactly why I wanted us to make the trip,’ Annie told him hopefully.
‘What the hell for? You lived over there for long enough, you should know it inside out, so what do you want to go over there for now?’
‘You sometimes used to go over there for a walk on Sundays,’ Annie reminded him.
His lip curled. ‘Yes, until some little bitch started spying on me.’
‘I wasn’t spying on you!’ Vera protested.
‘You were following me!’
‘Only because I was worried about little Benny. It was such a hot day and … and …’ But her voice died away as she saw the anger in her father’s face. She was suddenly afraid that he was going to hit her.
‘My answer is no!’ he snapped. ‘Understand? I don’t expect you lot to go jaunting over there, either. I expect my meal to be on the table on Sunday the same as always.’
Annie didn’t answer. She walked out of the room, her eyes bright with tears. She knew it was foolish to cry about such things, but it seemed to her that they had no family life these days. If Vera was willing then they’d take Benny to New Brighton, she resolved, no matter what Michael said.
On Sunday, Annie and Vera waited on tenterhooks, avoiding each other’s eyes as Michael Quinn dressed himself up in his best navy blue suit, slipped his gold hunter watch into his waistcoat pocket, and arranged the chain across his chest to his satisfaction. Annie brushed the nap on his bowler and handed it to him as soon as he was ready to leave. Vera cringed inwardly, wishing she could make things easier for her mother. Did marriage have to be like this, she wondered. If they’d stayed in Wallasey and she’d ended up marrying Jack Winter as she’d dreamed of doing, would he have changed like her dad had done?
Michael stopped as Benny came into the room. ‘What’s he wearing his school clothes for today?’ he asked.
None of them could think of a reply. ‘Since he’s clean and tidy I’ll take him with me,’ he told them.
‘Oh no!’ Vera’s eyes flashed angrily. ‘He’s not going to be dragged from one pub to the other, and made to sit on the doorstep while you’re inside swilling pints.’
‘Who the hell do you think you are you talking to?’ her father roared, as he raised his hand threateningly.
Vera faced him without flinching, contempt in her bright blue eyes.
‘Michael, do you need a clean handkerchief?’ Annie said quickly, anxious to distract his attention.
Savagely he pushed her to one side. ‘Stop fluttering round me like some demented old Mary Ellen! Just remember, I expect my meal to be on the table ready for me when I get back,’ he ordered.
‘It will be,’ Vera told him coolly.
He glared at her as if about to say something else, then rammed his bowler hat on his head and stormed out.
The minute he was gone, Vera sent her mother to get ready. ‘Go on,’ she urged. ‘I’ll put out a meal for him.’
With lightening speed she spread a white cloth on the table and set out cutlery for one person. Then she went into the scullery and brought out a plate of cold meat and salad, which was covered over by another plate, and put it down on the table, together with condiments and a bottle of sauce.
‘That’ll do for him,’ she stated as her mother came back into the room wearing a navy blue coat over her cotton dress and a navy blue hat on her head. ‘Come on, Benny, we’re going out for the day.’
As they walked to the tram stop in Scotland Road, Vera was aware of how tense her mother was, and that she was constantly looking over her shoulder.
‘Stop worrying, Mam! By now Dad’s downing pints in one of the pubs so he’s not going to suddenly appear and stop us going.’
‘I hope you’re right. I won’t feel comfortable until we’re on the ferry, though.’
, was at the landing stage when they arrived at the Pier Head. The moment they were on board, and the gangplank had been raised, Annie seemed to relax.
They went up onto the top deck, and sat on one of the bench seats near the railings, so that they could watch all that was happening as they sailed downriver. Benny was so excited that he couldn’t sit still for a minute.
‘Keep an eye on him, Vee, we don’t want him falling over the side,’ Annie said worriedly when he started running from one side of the deck to the other and trying to shin up the safety rails to see more clearly.
‘Benny, you come here, and kneel up on this seat, and I’ll tell you about everything we see all the way to New Brighton,’ Vera promised.
‘I can’t see over the side when I’m kneeling,’ he protested.
‘Well you can stand up on the seat then, as long as you keep still.’
Deftly, she manoeuvred him so that instead of being between herself and her mother, he was standing on her other side.
After the first few minutes of excitement he settled down, absolutely entranced by all that he could see. There was a smile on Annie’s face as she listened to them chattering away. Vera was a good daughter, she helped to make life bearable. She wondered what the future held in store for her. So far, she didn’t seem to bother with boys, yet when she’d been little she’d been inseparable from Eddy’s friend, Jack Winter.
When they reached New Brighton, they walked along the promenade as far as Perch Rock, and then went up one of the side streets in search of a café.
Benny enjoyed their meal of fish and chips and Vera bought him an ice cream afterwards whilst she and her mother enjoyed a cup of tea.
Although the beach was packed they managed to find two vacant deckchairs. Whilst Annie lay back with a handkerchief over her face to protect it from the hot sun, Vera helped Benny build a sandcastle.
By mid-afternoon the sun had vanished behind clouds and there was a freshness in the wind blowing in off the river. As the sky darkened, there was a mad stampede towards the pier. Everyone wanted to get back to Liverpool before the threatening storm broke.
Instead of following everyone else, they decided to take a tram to Liscard so that they could show Benny the places where they used to live. Their old house in Exeter Road, and the one in Trinity Road where Annie’s parents had lived, seemed very quiet after the noise of Scotland Road.
‘Do you wish you were back here, Mam?’ Vera asked.
Annie sighed and wiped a tear from the corner of her eye. ‘It was a different world, luv. We’ve all changed, too. Your dad was such a wonderful man in those days, before he went in the army. You’ve no idea how much he’s altered,’ she said sadly.
‘I have, Mam. I can remember how kind and jolly he was when I was little. He used to carry me on his shoulders when he took me to the shore with Charlie and Eddy.
‘Charlie!’ Annie sighed. ‘He was such a lovely boy. Perhaps everything would have been different if he hadn’t died. He had it quite easy when he was alive, compared to poor Eddy.’
‘Eddy seems to have made a good life for himself since he left school, though.’
‘Mmm! I suppose you could say that. He certainly doesn’t have much time for us nowadays,’ Annie admitted.
‘I blame Dad,’ Vera said bitterly. ‘He’s so harsh with us all, even with you, Mam!’
‘Shush!’ Annie gave her a warning look. ‘Little ears hear a lot, you know.’
As the ferry boat grated against the side of the landing stage back at the Pier Head, and the gangplank was lowered, Annie suddenly seemed to realise that evening was drawing in.
‘We’re terribly late,’ she said worriedly. ‘Your dad will be waiting for his cooked meal. Benny has to be up for school in the morning and you have to get your things ready for work.’
It was almost dark by the time they reached home from New Brighton.
‘Mind you both go indoors as quietly as you can so as not to disturb your father,’ Annie warned them as they walked down the back jigger. ‘Benny, you go straight upstairs and get ready for bed. Then come back down in your pyjamas for some supper.’
‘Perhaps you’d better take him up and help him, Mam,’ Vera suggested, ‘he looks tired out. I’ll start laying the table and getting things ready for our meal.’
‘All right,’ her mother agreed, ‘but I’ll be back down as soon as I can to help you.’
Michael Quinn was in the living room reading the
. He lowered the paper, rustling it angrily as Vera walked in.
‘Where do you lot think you’ve been until now?’ he snapped as she started clearing the table and then relaying the white cloth and setting out fresh cutlery.
‘We went to New Brighton, like we told you. We asked you to come with us.’
‘I told you not to go! Waste of bloody money going over there!’ he grunted.