Authors: Rosie Harris
From the Liverpool recruiting office he was sent off with about fifty others to the training barracks, kitted out in khaki and drilled by a bullying sergeant until he marched automatically and jumped to attention almost before an order was bellowed out. He would never forget the pride he had felt when they were sent by train to London and marched five-abreast through the city to Victoria station on their way to embark for France.
By October 1914 he was at Ypres, living in a muddy trench and experiencing first-hand what it meant to ‘go over the top’ when every nerve in your body was screaming with fear. The casualties were alarming. Later on there was an even greater hazard to be faced when the enemy started using gas.
His family was rarely in his thoughts; he was too busy concentrating on his army duties and his own survival. Verdun, the Somme, and then back again to Ypres.
Whilst the majority of his companions were maimed or killed he came through the many campaigns virtually unscathed. It was as if he had some invisible form of protection. The only thing he suffered throughout those terrible years of war was a change of personality. He was no longer the mild suburban family man. He’d reverted to the hard, wily character who’d learned to face the hardships of growing up in an orphanage and to fight for his place in life.
He built up such an inner reserve of strength that, unlike others in the same campaigns, he was never sent home for falling victim to stress, shell shock or war fatigue. The greater the bombardment, the more resolute he seemed to be. Everyone told him, his ‘luck’ would run out one day. He’d be another statistic. He proved them all wrong. He was still on active service, proudly wearing his two stripes, when peace was finally declared on 11th November 1918.
He was moved around and delayed so much prior to his final demob that he’d not heard from Annie for several months. It hadn’t worried him. It was only a matter of time before he would be home for good, then he’d be able to do all the catching up necessary.
Returning to Merseyside would be an anticlimax. Having been in charge of other men he knew he could never stand being servile to a boss ever again. It wasn’t going to be easy explaining to Annie that he wanted to be his own boss so the longer he could put off doing so the better.
He certainly hadn’t expected to become embroiled in the tragic situation that faced him soon after he arrived home. He’d known that the influenza outbreak that had swept right through Europe at the end of 1918 had reached pandemic proportions, but he hadn’t realised that any of his immediate family had been caught up in it.
After seeing so many men die in battle he would never have believed that he could feel so devastated. He was sorry that Annie’s parents, James and Emma Simmonds, had died, but they were getting on in years so it had to be accepted that they would have died sometime in the near future. It was Charlie’s death that affected him so badly. Charlie! His first born. The boy he was so proud of because he was the spitting image of himself.
Annie was so distraught by her parents’ and their son’s death that he’d automatically taken charge. The skills he had developed from handling difficult situations while he’d been in the army stood him in good stead for sorting out a new future for them all. By ruthlessly disposing of all of his in-laws’s possessions, and most of their own furnishings, he raised the capital to start up in business as an independent cobbler.
It was as if all the dreams and ambitions he’d built up in his mind while he had been in the trenches in France were coming to fruition. It was a challenge, of course, and one he felt should be tackled in new surroundings, so that they all made a complete break from their past.
Crossing the Mersey to Liverpool seemed to be an ideal solution. As a result of the police riots that had centred in Scotland Road during the summer of 1919, there were plenty of vacant shops with living accommodation which were being rented out very cheaply in that area. It meant that there was enough money left to buy stock to set himself up as an independent cobbler.
His war years had accustomed him to living rough so he never stopped to think that Annie and the kids might find it a hardship to move from their quiet little backwater in Wallasey to a place like Scotland Road.
At the time, Annie had showed little interest. ‘I don’t care where we live,’ she had said dismissively when he’d told her their new address. ‘No matter where it is Charlie won’t be with us, nor will my mother and father.’
He’d tried to be sympathetic, but he’d seen so many of his mates die over the past four years that he was now hardened to such things. He was still alive and so was she and so, too, were Edmund and Vera.
One of the biggest problems was Edmund. He wasn’t the sort of son he wanted. He was so quiet and withdrawn. Michael frequently wished that it had been Edmund, not Charlie, who’d succumbed to the influenza epidemic. Charlie had taken after him whereas, in many ways, Eddy took after Annie’s family. He was far too reserved. Whether Annie liked it or not he intended to toughen him up, ready to face the world.
Living in Scotland Road should help put that right, Michael thought. It was the opposite of where they’d lived in Wallasey. He liked it there and felt quite at home. There were nineteen pubs in Scotland Road alone and no matter what time of the evening he went into one of them for a drink there was always someone willing to listen to his tales about what had happened in France.
Annie had made it clear right from the moment he’d returned home from the war that she hated him going drinking, but he told her it was something she’d have to get used to. He’d become accustomed to living with men and he needed to be with them, swap yarns and enjoy their company.
His feelings for Annie had changed. The closeness and tenderness they’d known in the old days was no longer there. He was still prepared to bed her, of course. He’d proved that by putting her in the club almost the moment he’d got home. He regarded that as being providential since a baby would help fill the gap that Charlie’s death had left. A woman is always happiest when she has a youngster to care for because it fills in their day for them, he thought wryly. He hadn’t, of course, expected the baby to be such a whingeing little bugger.
He realised that Annie didn’t like living behind their shop in Scotland Road, but there wasn’t very much he could do about that. It was a bit rough after the little house they’d had in Wallasey, but the Simmonds had furnished that place for them and he’d sold most of it to buy the stock and machines he’d needed to get started.
He knew he often kept Annie short of money, but it was taking time to build up a steady flow of customers. In his view she wasn’t the best of money managers. They’d lived far beyond their means when they’d been in Wallasey. James Simmonds had always been ready to slip Annie a couple of quid to buy clothes for the kids, or for a pretty dress or a new hat for herself.
She’d also grown used to her mother dropping by most days with home-made cakes, or some other treat for the children. She missed all that help now that there was no one to indulge her.
He kept telling Annie that the kids didn’t need all that sort of rubbish and she must use her housekeeping money for the basics. She accused him of spending too much on beer, but at the end of a long working day a man deserved a pint to wet his whistle, and the chance to have a gab with other men. The sooner she got used to his new way of living the better, as far as he was concerned.
The moment the bell signalled the end of afternoon lessons at St Anthony’s School in Newsham Street, Vera Quinn hurried to collect her jacket from her peg in the cloakroom, anxious to get home.
‘Hey, wait for me, Vee!’ Her friend Rita Farthing caught up with her as she hurried across the school yard towards the iron gate.
‘Come on then, slowcoach, get a move on.’
Linking arms, they hurried out into Newsham Street. Two best friends: one plump, round-faced, with straight brown hair and brown eyes, the other as skinny as a beanpole with jet-black hair and bright blue eyes.
They turned left into Scotland Road and then ran helter-skelter towards the biscuit factory on the corner of Dryden Street.
‘I hope he’s saved something special for us today, I’m starving!’ Rita exclaimed as they reached the gatekeeper’s booth. She waved cheerily at her grandfather who controlled the barrier to the factory.
He waved back to them, a broad smile on his whiskered face, then dived under the counter and emerged holding a brown paper bag.
‘I wonder what he’s got for us,’ Rita exclaimed excitedly. She disentangled her arm from Vera’s and ran forward to reach up and take the bag from her grandfather, shouting her thanks to him as they ran off down Dryden Street.
When they came to the corner of Louis Cohen Place and turned back into Scotland Road they stopped to peer inside the bag. Their eyes widened with delight when amongst the mass of broken biscuits they spotted three whole ones which were all coated on one side with chocolate.
‘One each!’ Rita squealed. ‘My granddad must have put those in specially. Come on.’ She closed the bag again and grabbed at Vera’s hand. ‘If we hurry we’ll be able to catch your Eddy before he starts out on his delivery round.’
Vera pulled back. ‘No, you go and meet Eddy, I ought to get home.’
‘Must you?’ Rita frowned.
‘If Mam’s had a bad day with Benjamin you know she’ll be waiting for me to give her a hand and look after him,’ Vera reminded her.
‘OK. Here, take your choccy biscuit then and a handful of the broken ones for your Benny. I’ll share the rest with Eddy when I find him.’
‘Course I am! We always divide everything between the three of us, don’t we?’
‘Well, you do.’ Vera grinned. ‘I don’t often have very much to share with you.’
‘Yes you do, we share your brother,’ Rita reminded her with a cheeky grin.
As she hurried towards her own home at Quinn’s Boot and Shoe Repairer’s further along Scotland Road, Vera compared her own life with that of her friend Rita Farthing.
Rita had lived all her life in Ellenborough Street just off Scotland Road and they’d been friends from the very first day Vera had started going to St Anthony’s School.
Vera had been nine years old at the time and had dreaded having to go to a new school because she knew everyone would have their own special friend or belong to a gang, and she’d be left out of everything. She wished she could stay with her crowd in Wallasey, especially with Jack Winter who’d been her special friend.
She’d been told to sit next to Rita Farthing and the teacher had told Rita to keep an eye on her. Rita had done more than that. She’d never left her side. She’d introduced her to everyone else and made sure she was included in everything they did.
From that day on she and Rita had been inseparable. Rita’s father, Stan Farthing, worked as a stevedore at the docks. Vera wasn’t sure what that was, but she did know it meant that the Farthings always had plenty to eat. Millie Farthing, Rita’s mother, loved cooking and usually she packed so much into Rita’s lunch box that there was plenty for Rita to share with her and Edmund.
Sometimes Vera wondered whether Rita would have become her best friend if Eddy hadn’t been her brother. The moment she’d heard that there was a new boy, Edmund Quinn, two classes higher than them, and realised that he was Vera’s brother, she’d wanted to know all about him.
‘Come on,’ she’d demanded as soon as school ended on that first day, ‘you can introduce me to your brother.’
Vera hesitated. Edmund was walking down the road with two or three boys of his own age and she wasn’t sure it was a good time to approach him.
Eddy had scowled when she tapped him on the arm, but when he heard the reason why she’d stopped him he had managed to smile and say hello to Rita before moving on with his new friends.
‘He’s not a bit like you!’ Rita exclaimed in amazement.
‘He looks like my mum, except that her hair isn’t curly like his. I take after my dad, only my dad’s hair is curly.’
‘You’re nearly as tall as your brother!’
Vera frowned. She was tired of hearing her dad say that Eddy was a runt. ‘He’s only twelve, he’s still got time to grow,’ she said defensively.
‘Not too much, I hope,’ Rita grinned. ‘I like him as he is. I hate it when boys tower over me.’
At first Eddy had been completely uninterested in hearing about Rita and had given Vera black looks whenever she mentioned her friend’s name.
‘Why do you have to keep going on about her, she’s only a kid, the same as you are,’ he told her huffily.
When he discovered that the tasty wedges of pie or hunks of fruit cake that she passed to him now and again during their lunch break came from Rita he began to pay more attention.
Within a few months he was as interested in Rita as she was in him. He plied Vera with questions about where Rita lived and what she did after school until, in the end, she’d told him to go and ask Rita himself.
He’d turned as red as a beetroot and didn’t mention her name once over the next couple of weeks. Rita hadn’t talked about him either. The reason why that was had suddenly dawned on Vera one evening when she’d spotted them talking together on the corner of Ellenborough Street.
After that they often went round in a threesome and both Vera and Edmund enjoyed Rita’s generosity with the contents of her lunch box. The bag of broken biscuits that her grandfather gave her once a week, which she always shared with them, was an added bonus.
At first Vera thought she would never get used to living in Scotland Road. Liverpool was so different from where they’d lived in Wallasey. Yet, within a few months she felt as if she had lived there all her life, and she hardly noticed the trams clanging up and down right outside her bedroom window, or the loud shouts and general noise that went on in the street from early in the morning until late at night.
Even so, she didn’t like Scotland Road very much. Their main living room was at the back of her dad’s shop. It was dark and dreary and not nearly as nicely furnished as their living room in Exeter Road had been. The bare wooden floor had only a rag-rug in front of the fireplace and there was only one comfortable armchair and that was kept for her dad. The rest of the space was taken up with a scrubbed wooden table and an assortment of upright chairs.