Authors: Rosie Harris
‘Poor lad, he looks as though he needs feeding up, and he enjoys my cooking so much,’ she would protest if her husband commented.
‘Yes, I know he does, but remember young Michael has Irish blood in him so you should take his honeyed words with a pinch of salt.’
His other reservation about Annie’s new friend was that, despite Michael’s good looks and charming manner, he was only an apprentice cobbler. Although they hadn’t said as much, Annie sensed that her parents would like her to find a boyfriend who had better prospects.
At fifteen, headstrong and completely innocent, she had chosen to ignore any cautions about her boyfriend. Michael was so good-looking that she had fallen in love with him. He was full of promises for their future and she believed every gilded word he uttered.
Throughout the spring and summer of 1904 she’d existed in a blissful, dreamlike trance. She adored everything about Michael and she devoted every spare minute to being with him.
Michael was so wonderfully attentive that he made her feel like a princess. When he took her to the cinema it was always to see the picture she requested. When they went dancing at the Tower Ballroom it was to the strains of the band she liked best. On her sixteenth birthday in June 1904 he took her on the ferry boat across to Liverpool and treated her to a special meal at the State Restaurant in Dale Street.
As the weather became warmer they walked along the seafront at New Brighton, or wandered amongst the sand hills in Harrison Drive. She was so infatuated by him that she made no protest whatsoever when he wanted to make love to her whenever they were alone. She was head-over-heels in love with him.
She was the envy of all the other girls at the hairdresser’s, where she was an apprentice, when she told them he wanted to marry her.
‘You can’t get married until after your next birthday,’ her friend Ellie warned her.
‘That’s less than a year away!’
‘Maybe it is, but you won’t be able to marry then unless your parents give their permission, will you?’
‘They will,’ she told Ellie confidently. ‘They think the world of Michael.’
When she discovered she was pregnant, though, she was scared stiff about what her parents would say.
They were shocked by the news when she finally told them. Her mother was in tears and her father was so angry he could hardly bear to talk about it.
‘Michael has promised there will be no scandal. As long as both of you are agreeable he says we can be married before anyone knows there is a baby on the way.’
Instead of being pleased, as she’d expected, they’d tried to persuade her to finish with him there and then.
‘We’ll take care of you and we’ll arrange for the baby to be adopted as soon as it is born,’ they told her.
Michael had dug his heels in when she told him what her parents had said. ‘It’s out of the question! I love you, I want to take care of you and our baby. If we get married right away no one will be any the wiser.’
‘How can you possibly manage to conceal such a thing when my daughter’s already over four months pregnant?’ James Simmonds demanded when, hand-in-hand, they went to him and begged him to let them marry.
‘We’ll elope if we have to! It’s simple enough, Mr Simmonds,’ Michael told him.
Annie could remember to this day the look of horror on her father’s face. She was their only child and he’d saved each week for her future since the day she’d been born.
He had set his heart on her having a fairy-tale wedding when the time came. She’d be dressed in a beautiful white dress with a long flowing veil and would carry white roses, just like her mother had done on their wedding day.
Her mother, Emma Simmonds, had been heartbroken, too. Michael Quinn could say what he liked, but she knew full well that her friends and neighbours would guess why he and Annie had married in such a hasty, secretive way.
Respectability was an important facet of life in the middle-class area where they lived in Wallasey. Tongues would wag behind the lace curtains at each of the semi-detached Victorian houses in Trinity Road. Even if nothing was said openly, they’d be counting the days to when Annie’s baby was born. When it happened only a few months after the wedding ceremony they’d draw their own conclusions and it would be hard for any of the Simmonds family to hold their heads up again.
James Simmonds’ position as a teller at the Liscard branch of Martins Bank might even be jeopardised. He’d certainly never be promoted to manager once the scandal got out.
They accepted the inevitable, however, and James Simmonds used the money he had carefully saved up for his daughter’s white wedding to buy his new son-in-law a partnership in a cobbler’s business in Wallasey’s busy King Street. He also found them a small house to rent in Exeter Road, only a short distance away, and furnished it from top to bottom.
Having a child at seventeen was a tremendous shock for Annie. She had barely needed to lift a finger at home, but now, instead of being the one who was waited on, she found she not only had to look after a new baby, but a husband and home too.
Charlie was born in April 1905, a bouncing seven and a half pounds, with his father’s dark hair and vivid blue eyes. Annie found that her mother, despite her earlier qualms, was a tower of strength and did all she could to help.
Emma’s delight in her grandson turned to recriminations against Michael, however, when she learned that Annie was expecting again when Charlie was barely seven months old. She seemed almost relieved when Annie miscarried when she was only three months pregnant.
Charlie was not quite two and a half when Edmund was born in October 1907. He was a sickly baby and Annie knew that without her own mother’s devoted care he would never have survived. Edmund also had his father’s vivid blue eyes, but his hair was a shock of curls as golden as freshly churned butter.
‘Given time, we’ll have our own little football team,’ he announced proudly when, a year after Edmund was born, Annie was pregnant once again.
This time it was a little girl. Vera Quinn was born on 1st May 1909. A plump, contented baby, she had her mother’s fine features, but her father’s eyes and jet-black hair.
‘She’ll be a real beauty when she gets older,’ Michael announced happily.
There was no doubt at all that she was the apple of his eye. He picked her up and nursed her the minute he came in from work. He would even carry her down the street in his arms, showing her off to anyone who expressed the slightest interest.
Annie worried that the two boys might become jealous, but they seemed to accept her arrival in their lives. They had each other to play with and Annie made sure that they had plenty of attention from her whenever Mike was cuddling Vera.
She was expecting again when war was declared, but the shock of Michael dashing off to serve his country caused her such distress that no one was surprised when she miscarried.
‘You mustn’t worry about it, Annie. You’ve got quite enough on your plate as it is with three youngsters, my dear,’ her mother told her.
She didn’t fret; in fact she felt a sense of relief. She silently agreed with her mother that three children were quite enough to cope with, especially with Michael being away in the army.
As the years passed, despite a great many shortages as a result of the war, the children seemed to be happy enough and to grow apace and Annie felt quite contented with her life. With all the children at school, and her own mother willing to be there for them when they came home, Annie was even able to go back to work for two days a week. She saved this extra money, hoping that they could have a family holiday when Michael was eventually demobbed.
It was early 1919 before he was discharged, though, and by that time an influenza epidemic was sweeping across Europe, so a holiday was out of the question. Charlie, as well as both her parents, were ill.
She still found it hard to believe that all three of them died within days of each other. At the time she’d felt as if her entire world had collapsed. In a way, it had. The happy days with her own mother and father supporting her had gone for ever.
She was in such a daze that she left it to Michael to settle up her parents’ affairs. When he told her that they were moving to Liverpool, and that he was setting up his own business, she made no protest at all.
What did it matter where she lived. Her parents were gone and so, too, was one of her little boys. There seemed to be so much sorrow in her life that she didn’t even ask Michael where he was getting the money from to rent his own shop, or even care that it was in Liverpool on the other side of the Mersey.
It wasn’t until many months later that she realised that in order to set up on his own Michael had sold all her parents’ possessions, every single thing they had ever owned. He hadn’t even kept a picture, an ornament, or a piece of her mother’s jewellery for her to have as a keepsake.
No one knew better than Michael Quinn how much the army had changed him since his days as a raw recruit in 1914.
When the other men in his unit found out that he came from Merseyside they immediately wanted to know if he was a Wallasey boy. He couldn’t understand the jeers, the laughter and the nudges when he readily admitted that he was. It was only later that he found out that being termed a ‘Wallasey Boy’ meant they thought he was homosexual.
He had lived through a similar scenario because of his good looks when he’d been in the orphanage. He didn’t relish a repeat of the torment he’d endured then so he tried to blend into the background.
The moment he completed his square-bashing though, he started working hard to gain his stripes. It had taken six months to get his lance corporal tab, but from the moment he did he was relieved to find that he had earned himself a degree of respect. There were no more jibes, at least not within earshot.
When he was finally made a full corporal his life changed completely. He was in charge. No one could sneer or guffaw after that. Those who had already done so quickly felt the weight of his authority. He handed out so much punishment that he was the most feared NCO in the regiment.
After that, there was no turning back. He’d heard the saying that ‘power corrupts’ and he supposed that in a way it had that effect on him.
He could still charm his superiors when it suited him to do so, but he was no longer the easy-going, smiling chap he’d tried to be from the moment he’d met Annie.
Being away from his wife and kids had put that relationship into perspective as well. The world was a harsh place. He was living in dangerous times, balancing on the knife-edge of survival, experiencing hunger, pain and fear. He’d seen his comrades die. Having survived the mud and bullets of battle he vowed that in future he would put himself first, even before his family.
Once he was back home, he was annoyed to see how protective Annie was, how she coddled their children. Edmund, in particular, irritated him so much that he couldn’t bear to look at him. He was such a short, skinny kid, and, what was worse, he always had his nose in a book or comic. He was not the sort of lad he could be proud to say was his son. He wanted his boys to be tough enough to hold their own in the school playground or out in the street. Boys should know how to use their fists to defend themselves.
He intended to knock Edmund into shape, even though this meant he’d have to fight with Annie as well. Not long after Michael had arrived home he’d tried to teach Edmund to box, but he just hid behind his mother’s skirts.
‘Leave the lad alone! It’s not his nature to be aggressive,’ Annie had told him sharply.
‘He’ll need to learn to stand up for himself now he’s living in this area. The lads in school will pick on him, especially when they hear he’s from Wallasey.’
He’d tried to explain to her what was meant by the term ‘a Wallasey boy’, but she’d been disgusted and gave him a right earful.
From that moment on their relationship had turned sour. She’d learned over the past years how to bring up her children without a father. Michael had been away for over four years, and now she felt that she no longer needed or even wanted to listen to him, nor did she welcome his attentions.
When, within a couple of months of his homecoming, she found she was pregnant again, she expressed such anger that he’d seen red and slapped her across the face almost without thinking.
Instead of cowering back, she had turned on him like an alley cat.
‘Don’t you ever do that again,’ she’d hissed. ‘This is the last baby you’re going to foist on me, understand?’
Sensing danger he’d turned on the charm. ‘What about that football team we were going to produce,’ he joked.
‘This is my last baby and I don’t care whether it is a boy or a girl, you won’t be fathering any more. You’ve changed so much that I hardly know you. You’re no longer the man I married. There’s no tenderness or kindness left in you. You’re drunk with your own power and nothing but a great bully. You might be able to browbeat Edmund and Vera, but you’ll never intimidate me.’
Her tone was icy and the look of hatred in her eyes scared him as much as anything he had experienced in his very worst moments in France. He knew she was right. His whole attitude to life and to other people, even his wife and children, was different.
To this day he didn’t truly understand what had happened to him when war was declared in August 1914. All he knew was that he couldn’t wait to join up. It was as if he had waited all his life for this moment. He felt needed, eager to be in the thick of the fighting. He thought he could take on the enemy and sort them out, single-handed if necessary. It seemed he’d reached a crisis point. He’d blindly abandoned both his job and his family, and rushed along to the recruiting office.
He’d been confident, of course, that Annie’s father, James Simmonds would keep an eye on Annie and the children. He was far too old to be called up and so he’d be there for them whether the war took a month or even a year.
He’d never expected it to be more than four years until he was back home again. Or that he would undergo a complete change in his outlook on life, indeed, a metamorphosis of his entire personality.