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Authors: Rosie Harris

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BOOK: The Cobbler's Kids
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He snatched the plate out of Annie’s hands, spilling some of the vegetables and gravy as he did so. Picking up the carving knife again he hacked off one of the wings and piled that on top of the other food on Eddy’s plate.

‘Now eat! I only want to see a pile of bones left! Understand?’ He looked round the table with an amused smirk on his face. ‘That goes for the lot of you. No one gets down until their plate’s clean.’ They ate in utter silence, pushing the meat around, trying to hide it. It was as if each mouthful was choking them. What should have been a happy, joyous occasion was an unbearably tense experience that seemed to go on for ever. All of them kept glancing sideways at each other, peeping to see how much was left on everyone else’s plates.

For once, both Vera and Eddy wished that their father would do his usual trick of reaching out and spearing the meat from their plates, telling them that they didn’t need it.

Only Benny seemed to enjoy his meal. Annie had mashed up vegetables, cut a slice of breast into tiny slivers and moistened them with gravy, so he was tucking in with great gusto.

The rest of them managed to eat their vegetables, but none of them could bring themselves to touch the chicken. They’d all tried to hide it under the gravy that was now cold and congealing on their plates.

Their father watched with growing anger and they knew he was not prepared to leave it at that.

‘I said clean plates and that was what I meant. We’re not wasting one scrap of that bird!’

‘It’s all right I’ll make it into a really nice soup for tomorrow,’ Annie said quickly.

‘You’ll do no such thing! I’m not agreeing to that,’ Michael sneered. ‘Get eating, the lot of you, and that goes for you in particular,’ he snarled, prodding Eddy’s arm sharply with the prongs of his fork.

Belching loudly, he pushed back his chair and slouched over to the armchair that he regarded as his own. ‘Get on with it, the pubs won’t be opening tonight so I’m in no hurry. You can bloody well sit there until tomorrow morning for all I care.’

They waited until the surfeit of food lulled Michael Quinn into a sleep that was punctuated by grotesque snores. Annie and Vera swiftly took each plate and scraped the meat from the bones. They then dropped it inside the jug that still held enough gravy to cover it.

‘Stay where you are for a minute,’ their mother told them as she put the bones back on their plates. She stood up, moving away from the table and deliberately brushed against her husband’s leg as she did so.

He woke with a startled grunt. ‘What the hell are you doing? I said no one was to move from the table until they’d cleared their plates.’

‘You don’t expect them to eat the bones as well, do you, Mike?’ she asked sarcastically.

He sat up and looked across at the table, a smirk of satisfaction on his face. ‘No, they can leave those. Use them along with the carcass for that bloody stew or soup you said you were going to make. Remember to cut all the meat off the carcass for me first.’

‘Oh, yes, I’ll do that,’ she promised. I’ll slice it off, cover it with gravy so that it won’t dry out, and then I’ll warm it up for your meal tomorrow.’

As he gave his approval and sank back into sleep, Annie picked up the gravy jug. She signalled to Vera to start clearing the table, then she carried the jug of meat and gravy out to the scullery.

‘There’s pudding and custard, so you can all fill up on that,’ she told them. ‘I’ll put it into dishes and you can take it up to your bedrooms and eat it there.’

Benny was unable to understand what had happened to the chicken. In the days that followed he spent endless hours looking for it even after they tried to explain to him that it had flown away.

Vera did her best to distract Benny by taking him out to the park as often as possible, as well as taking him with her whenever she had to go and deliver boots or shoes for her father.

Although this saved her mother from having to look after him, it also meant that she wasn’t helping as much around the home as she felt she ought to.

Anyone could see that Annie Quinn had lost weight. She was beginning to look as if a puff of wind would blow her away. Although she never complained, Vee couldn’t help noticing that she seemed to have no energy for tackling the everyday jobs, and very little interest in what was going on outside their home.

Her mother’s main concern was making sure that Benny was all right, and keeping Eddy out of his dad’s way. Vera helped as much as she could on both counts, but it was Benny’s welfare that concerned her most. Eddy, she reasoned, was big enough to look out for himself, but Benny was too little to understand if he was being bullied or to do anything about it.

To be fair, she had to admit that she’d never heard her dad raise his voice directly at Benny. For the most part he ignored him, as long as he wasn’t crying. And, now that he was older and able to ask for things, Benny didn’t cry anywhere near as much.

She knew her mother spoiled him. He never went hungry, in fact he was always given the best bits of whatever they were eating. As a result he was growing into a very sturdy little boy. Vera often found that when Benny was with her when she was doing deliveries, with his huge blue eyes, thick blond curls and winning smile he was the one who was given a penny or two, not her.

Usually she saw that he spent the money on a cake or a bun on the way home. She was afraid that if her dad saw him clutching his pennies he might take them off him.

She enjoyed the way Benny prattled on about everything they saw when they were out, and she marvelled at his boundless energy. He never seemed to be tired, or ask to be carried, and his little legs somehow always managed to keep up with her, even when she was in a hurry.

‘You’ll never find yourself a boyfriend, Vee, as long as you’ve always got Benny in tow,’ her friend Rita told her.

‘I’d sooner have his company than that of most of the boys we know,’ Vera countered.

‘He’s lovely, but I’d rather go for a walk with his big brother than with him,’ Rita laughed.

Eddy had matured a great deal since working at Cammell Laird’s and being in the company of older men who treated him as an equal. Since the episode with the chicken at Christmas he had avoided his father whenever possible. If he found himself in the living room alone with Michael, he quietly went out or up to his bedroom. Vera knew that it was a sensible way to behave, but she found herself missing Eddy’s company.

He and Rita were closer than ever. They spent a considerable amount of time in each other’s company. But Vera often felt deprived of her friend’s company, too, and sometimes felt quite isolated.

Because of his new life, Eddy didn’t spend very much time with Benny, either. As the days became warmer, and the evenings lighter, Vera often wished Eddy would play with him or take him for a walk. In the end, one Sunday, she suggested that perhaps he and Rita could take Benny out.

‘It will give me a chance to tackle the ironing that’s piled up all week because mam hasn’t felt well enough to do it,’ she told him.

‘Oh, Vee, any other time of course I would, but we’ve made plans to go out with a crowd of friends,’ he said apologetically. ‘I’ll do it next week, I promise.’

‘No need for you to trouble yourself. You can bugger off and I’ll take Benny for a walk.’

Vera jumped in surprise. She’d had no idea that her father was within earshot. ‘It’s all right, I’ll manage,’ she said quickly.

‘I’ll take Benny for a walk so go and get him ready!’

‘Very well.’ Quickly Vera dressed him in clean clothes and put on his outdoor shoes.

‘Ready?’ Michael Quinn held out his hand to the toddler. ‘Come on then.’

Vera felt concerned. Benny was sturdy, but he wasn’t yet four years old and she wasn’t sure if her father appreciated that fact.

‘You won’t walk too fast or too far, will you Dad,’ she begged. ‘If he starts to lag because he’s tired you will carry him won’t you?’ she pleaded.

‘I always carried you when you were his size didn’t I?’

‘Yes, Dad, you did. Always!’ She smiled at the recollection. Those moments were still bright jewels in her memory. Sometimes she wondered if they had ever happened. Those halcyon days, when they’d lived in Wallasey and played on the shore at New Brighton, seemed like remnants from another life.

Her father had always been laughing and happy in those days, and her mother had been full of life and had joined in their fun. Why had he changed so much, she asked herself, as she watched her father set off down the street, Benny clasping his hand tightly, his little legs going like pistons as he tried to keep up with his father’s long strides.

From then on, it became routine for Michael to take Benny for a walk on Sundays whenever the weather was fine. The fact that Benny came back so tired that he could barely eat his meal before falling asleep worried Vera. When she asked him where they’d been she couldn’t make any sense of his answers. From what little she gleaned, as he prattled on about water and boats, it seemed that her father must be taking him down to the Pier Head.

Finally, overcome by curiosity, and concerned about Benny’s exhaustion, she decided to follow them.

It was a beautiful hot, sunny day in late July. She’d dressed Benny in a bright blue sailor suit she’d bought from the market, and with his white socks, and little black shoes, he looked angelic.

Tentatively, without revealing what she intended to do, she suggested to her mother that they should go for a walk, but to her relief her mother declined.

‘I find this heat exhausting,’ she sighed. ‘I’d much rather go and have a lie down.’

Vera gave her father and Benny time to reach the corner of the road before she began to tail them. She knew she had to be careful in case Benny turned round and saw her. If that happened she would have a job explaining to her father what she was doing.

To her surprise they boarded a tram, and for a moment she thought she had lost them. Then she realised that it would be going to the Pier Head so all she had to do was catch the next one.

When she reached there it was so congested that she was afraid she wouldn’t be able to find them. But then she caught sight of them walking down the floating roadway onto the Wallasey ferry boat.

Making sure they didn’t see her, she followed them onto the boat. When they finally reached Seacombe her father and Benny were amongst the first off the boat and they were again lost in the crowd. The next time she caught sight of them they were heading towards the Seacombe Ferry Hotel.

Vera watched in disbelief as he sat Benny down on the steps outside the pub and left him there while he went in. She was torn between rushing over and picking Benny up and waiting to see what happened next.

Minutes passed and she could see that Benny was becoming fractious. She was about to walk over to him when her father came out, grabbed Benny by the hand, and began marching along the promenade towards Egremont.

Vera followed in their wake and saw them stop at Mother Redcap’s, and then again at two more pubs before they reached New Brighton. Each time her father went in and left Benny outside. He never once brought him out a drink and, since Vera was gasping from the heat, she knew that by now Benny must be feeling exhausted.

When they reached New Brighton, her father began walking smartly along the Ham and Egg Parade towards Perch Rock. He was almost dragging Benny off his feet, so she felt she had to do something.

Jostling her way through the crowds of holidaymakers she reached their side as her father was about to go into the Mariner’s Arms on the corner of Victoria Road. But she was so breathless that she couldn’t speak. As she saw the startled look on her dad’s face she knew there was no need to say anything, her reproachful stare had said it all.

‘Here,’ he pushed Benny towards her, ‘take him home, he seems to have had enough.’

‘It’s a wonder he hasn’t come to some harm being left outside so many pubs,’ Vera exploded furiously as she picked Benny up in her arms and cuddled him. ‘I know now why he’s always half dead by the time you arrive home after one of your Sunday walks.’

‘Less of your lip!’

She stared defiantly back at him, her blue eyes dark with anger. ‘Dragging him around all day on a pub crawl without anything to eat or drink, and you call that looking after him! It’s enough to give him sunstroke in this heat!’ she fumed.

‘Take him back home like I’ve told you to do and think yourself lucky I don’t belt you one right here in front of everybody,’ he growled.

‘You wouldn’t dare,’ she said scornfully. ‘There’s a scuffer on the corner watching us and he’s itching to come over here and find out what’s going on. One whiff of your beery breath and he’ll arrest you, especially when I tell him how you’ve been mistreating little Benny!’

Chapter Nine

May 1924 couldn’t come soon enough for Vera Quinn. That was when she would be fourteen and able to leave school to earn some money. There was only one drawback, though, she couldn’t find a job.

Rita, had already been promised work on the assembly line at the biscuit factory where her grandfather worked. Vera had gone along to see if they would take her on as well, but she’d been told the list was closed, and that they were now fully staffed.

‘You could try at Lyon’s Corner House in town,’ Rita told her. ‘That’s where I would have liked to work really but factory work is better paid.’

‘Work as a Nippy and have to wear one of them daft little frilly hats? No thank you!’ Vera laughed.

She was beginning to think that she would have to go into the centre of Liverpool for a job, or else work at one of the factories at Kirkdale or Wavertree. But by chance she heard about a vacancy for a junior clerk at Elbrown’s, the paint and wallpaper merchant’s in Great Homer Street.

‘I wouldn’t fancy having to sit at a desk writing out invoices all day,’ Rita commented. ‘Anyway, working at that place you’ll come home stinking of turpentine and paint.’

‘It’s not far to go, though, is it! I can cut through Dryden Street and I’m there.’

Vera went straight to Elbrown’s when she finished school that afternoon. As she pushed open the glass door a bell jangled noisily and the smell of paint, and a dozen other things she couldn’t name, stopped her in her tracks. As she saw that a lot of the display shelves, reaching from the floor to the ceiling, were piled high with cans of paint and varnish she remembered what Rita had said, and she wondered if she would be able to smell it in the offices which were probably above the shop.

BOOK: The Cobbler's Kids
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