Authors: Roberta Grieve
Ellie Tyler reached the corner of the narrow terraced street and looked back to see that Gran was still standing at her back door.
‘See you next week,’ she called, waving. She waited until her grandmother had gone back into the house before ducking through a gap in the dilapidated fence surrounding the rubble-filled site that had been cleared to make way for a new block of flats.
She ran across the uneven ground, her shiny nut-brown curls bouncing on her shoulders. She couldn’t wait to get home and tackle Mum about what Gran had just told her.
She should have been thinking about the exams next week. If she didn’t pass she’d never get a good job or go to college. She didn’t want to end up working at the Riverside Club like her sister. Not that she really thought Dad would let her go to art college even if she won the scholarship. She was lucky he’d agreed to her staying on the extra year to take the GCE exams.
She reached the main road leading past the market, jumped over the strand of wire, all that remained of the fence on this side, and then started as a meaty hand descended on her shoulder and a loud voice said, ‘Wotcher, Ellie. ’Eard from your ’Arry lately?’
She turned to face the big man with his even bigger grin. ‘Oh, Mr Varney, it’s you.’
‘’Oo d’yer think it was then? The Lord Mayor of London?’ The laugh boomed out and Ellie couldn’t help smiling, despite her preoccupation with her grandmother’s recent revelations about the family history.
‘I had a letter from him the other day. He’s still in Germany,’ she said.
‘Well, when you write, tell ’im I miss him down the market. All the old dears do too. I reckon I don’t sell ’alf as much veg since ’e’s bin gone.’
‘I’ll tell him, Mr Varney.’ Her smile faded. ‘I miss him too.’
‘Well, he’s only got a couple more months to do. You tell ’im, love – there’ll be a job waiting for ’im when ’e’s finished ’is National Service.’
A couple of months, Ellie thought as she said goodbye to the stallholder, her steps dragging as she turned off the busy Roman Road into Kendall Street. It seemed a lifetime to her. Ever since she was a little girl she’d worshipped Harry, the boy she’d been brought up to think of as her brother all these years. He’d always been there, sharing his sweet ration, sorting out the bullies who jeered at her in her grammar school uniform, and most of all shielding her from her father’s temper. When he’d left to do his National Service, she knew he’d had no choice, but it felt as if he’d deserted her.
She reached the tall shabby building on the corner where their landlord, Mr Solomons, had his second-hand furniture shop. The shutters were up and she realized it must be later than she thought. As she ran up the steep stairs to their flat, her mother appeared in the doorway of the back room which served the family as combined kitchen and living room.
‘Where’ve you been, Ellie? I’ve been worried to death. It’s gone six.’
She didn’t sound angry, just tired.
All thoughts of the conversation with Gran and the questions she wanted to ask flew out of Ellie’s head, as her mother gripped the doorframe, knuckles white, eyes red-rimmed in her pale face.
Ellie hung her satchel over the banister and took her mother’s arm, leading her into the kitchen and guiding her into the armchair beside the range. She poked the fire into life and pushed the kettle over the flames.
‘What is it this time?’ she asked in a resigned voice, for what else could it be but her father having one of his paddies again? The slightest thing could set him off, especially when he’d been drinking.
‘It’s Sheila.’ Tears spilled over and ran down Mary’s cheeks.
Ellie looked on helplessly before busying herself making a pot of tea. As she got the cups out and warmed the teapot, she wondered what had happened. Her half-sister had started work at the Riverside Club when she left school four years ago, despite her mother’s protests that it wasn’t a respectable place for a fifteen-year-old.
Sheila had defied her, egged on by Bert and his promises that his mate Tommy Green would pay her twice as much as she could earn behind the counter in Woolies.
‘What’s wrong with being a waitress?’ she’d asked and Mary had reluctantly given in.
When she’d matured into the long-legged, bosomy beauty she now was, Tommy raised her salary and moved her into the nightclub. A hostess, she called herself now and Ellie knew her mother wasn’t happy about it.
‘What’s she been up to?’
Mary shook her head. ‘She’s only been carrying on with that hoodlum – and him a married man.’ She began to cry again.
Ellie shivered at the thought of Sheila carrying on with Tommy Green. She couldn’t stand her father’s boss who owned several clubs and gyms in the neighbourhood. Everyone knew they were a cover for his criminal activities but he was very well off and that would be the attraction for Sheila. She’d always wanted the things that money could buy.
Mary gave a sarcastic laugh. ‘Your Dad’s furious – only threatening to beat Tommy up, if you please.’
Ellie couldn’t help smiling too. The ex-boxer could make mincemeat of Bert if he chose, and he had the back-up of the gang of thugs who hung around the club. But that was her Dad all over, shouting and carrying on with no thought of the consequences, especially when he had a few drinks inside him.
‘Don’t worry, Mum. He won’t do anything. Too scared of losing his job,’ Ellie said.
But that wasn’t why Mum was so upset, she realized. It was the thought of her daughter carrying on with a man more than twice her age, and married at that. She’d tried so hard to bring her children up to be respectable, despite their poverty and terrible living conditions – not to mention her husband’s shady dealings. Harry and Ellie hadn’t disappointed her, but it had always been a losing battle as far as the headstrong Sheila was concerned.
‘Where’s Dad now?’ Ellie asked.
‘He went looking for Sheila, threatening all sorts if he catches up with her.’
The slam of the front door shook the house, its echoes reaching up the stairwell and both Ellie and her mother jumped, straining towards the door as footsteps sounded on the uncarpeted stairs.
Mary gave Ellie a little push. ‘Best get up to your room, love. Get on with your homework. I’ll come up before I go to work.’
Ellie didn’t need telling twice. She darted out of the room, grabbed her satchel off the banister and crept up to the attic room she shared with Sheila. She took her books out of her bag and sat at the table in front of the window. Although it was supposed to be almost summer, the mist from the river seeping through the cracks in the badly fitting window frame made it feel cold.
She fetched the eiderdown from the bed and wrapped it round her, pulling it up around her ears to keep out the draughts as well as the sound of shouting from downstairs. Not Dad’s voice, thank goodness. This time it was Sheila having a go.
Ellie got up and wedged a chair under the doorknob, just in case Dad came back. Sometimes she got so engrossed in her homework, especially if it was English or history, that she didn’t hear him coming.
It was English tonight, but she couldn’t really concentrate. She put down her Shaeffer fountain pen, a present from Harry for passing the scholarship exam, and glanced across at the door, reassuring herself that the chair was still in place. There was no privacy in the Tyler household and even the wedged chair wasn’t always proof against Bert’s more determined efforts. But she was safe for a while. Mum hadn’t gone to work yet and he never came to her room while Mum was still there.
She sighed. If only Mum didn’t work nights at the hospital, she thought, picking up her exercise book and reading through her composition. She wasn’t really satisfied with it but she replaced the book in her satchel and got out her pad to write to Harry. Usually she had no trouble filling several pages with family news and gossip. She got as far as telling him she’d met Mr Varney but then she got stuck. She couldn’t mention what Sheila had been up to and, as for what Gran had told her earlier, she thought she’d better wait till she’d talked to her mother.
She chewed the end of her pen, thinking that perhaps she should have gone round to Judith’s after school. At least she’d have someone to talk to. But, she was fed up with her friend’s teasing every time she mentioned Harry.
‘Anyone would think he was your boyfriend, the way you go on about him,’ she’d said and Ellie had been unable to prevent the hot red tide flooding her face, which of course only made Judith tease all the more.
She stood up and lifted the curtain, gazing out at the twinkling lights of the city. The fog had lifted now. It had only been a light mist from the river, not like the pea-soupers in the winter, when all the fires of the close-packed houses were belching out their thick coal smoke.
She remembered a few years ago when it had been so bad that people were told to stay indoors. Mum had kept her off school for a couple of days and she’d missed her art lesson that week. Gran had been ill too, with a bad chest, and her cough had never really cleared up.
Ellie leaned on the window sill. She loved the city at night. The tall blocks of flats that were going up to replace the wartime bombsites, seemed like fairytale castles when they were all lit up. She would often sit here, watching the trains rattling over the bridge at the end of the road by the market, listening to the distant hooting of ships on the Thames, and daydreaming about a different world far removed from the drab one she’d known all her life. She often longed to get away from it, especially when her father was making life miserable for her. But here, under the cloak of darkness, London seemed a magical place and she couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.
The doorknob rattled and Ellie started, relaxing as she heard Sheila’s whisper. ‘It’s only me, let me in.’
Ellie removed the chair and opened the door a crack. ‘Where’s Dad?’
‘Has Mum gone to work yet?’
‘Not yet – she’s just getting ready.’
‘She’s really upset.’
‘I know. She called me a trollop.’ Sheila gave a short laugh when she saw her sister’s expression. ‘It’s not like that. Tommy loves me, he said so. He’s going to get me a flat.’
Ellie’s eyes widened. ‘But Sheila, he’s already married.’
‘So what? I don’t care – not when he gives me such lovely presents.’ Sheila grinned, fingering the gold bangle which encircled her wrist. ‘Well, where do you think I got the clothes, the jewellery?’
‘I thought you bought them yourself – out of your wages.’
‘Don’t make me laugh. You know I give most of it to Mum. She needs it with Harry gone. Gawd knows she gets little enough from Bert after he’s had a few drinks.’
Ellie sat down on the edge of the bed. To be honest, she wasn’t really surprised that Sheila accepted gifts from her boss in return for ‘being nice to him’ as she put it. Her sister had always liked pretty things and had vowed that one way or another she would have them. But to be nice to Tommy Green, with his piggy eyes and black greasy hair, his stomach hanging over his trousers, albeit half-hidden by his silk waistcoat and expensively-cut jacket? He was old enough to be Sheila’s father. She voiced the thought aloud and her sister turned on her.
‘Well at least he’s good to me. Anyway, it’s no different to doing it with ’im.’ She jerked her head towards the door. ‘And at least I get something out of it.’
Ellie didn’t reply and Sheila sank down on the bed beside her, putting her arm round the younger girl. ‘Don’t look so shocked, love. You must’ve known. Why do you think he got me the job at the club and stood up for me when Mum tried to stop me working there? I threatened to tell her what was going on. ’E nearly wet ’isself. He knows I’m not scared of ’im any more.’
Ellie wasn’t shocked in the sense of being surprised. She’d always shared a room with her sister, so she could hardly avoid knowing what her father got up to. The surprise had come when he’d started on her. After all, she wasn’t pretty like Sheila and when he was in a bad mood he’d call her horrid names like ‘skinny little runt’ and ‘know-it-all brat’. She’d put his attentions down to the fact that, once Sheila started work, she wasn’t available, so he had to make do with her. At first, because she’d been used to him coming to their room at night, she’d accepted it as normal, although she didn’t like it, even when he stroked her hair and called her his little angel. It was only when she’d cried out and Bert had threatened her, promising far worse if her mother ever got to hear of it, that she’d realized his behaviour was wrong.
Now she tried to talk to Sheila about it, but her sister just brushed her off. ‘You’ll get used to it. I had to.’
When Ellie started to cry, she softened a little, putting her arm round her shoulders and giving her a hug. ‘There’s nothing we can do about it, kid,’ she said harshly. ‘If Harry knew, he’d kill the bastard – come to that, I’ve often thought of it myself. But he’s not worth swinging for.’ She turned to Ellie, pinching her chin in her fists and looking into her eyes. ‘Promise me, you won’t say anything to anyone. You wouldn’t want to get either of us into trouble, would you?’
Ellie nodded silently, sniffing and wiping her hand across her nose, watching as Sheila banged around slamming drawers and muttering to herself; ‘I never thought he’d do it to his own kid. I’d like to get my ’ands on ’im.’
When she pulled an old suitcase down from the top of the cupboard and started throwing things into it, Ellie suddenly realized what she was doing. ‘Where are you going?’
‘Tommy’s waiting for me round the corner in his posh car. ’E’s got a Jag. Real leather seats, goes like a bomb.’ Her voice lost its chirpy tone and she said, ‘Look, Ellie, you’ve gotta understand. I can’t stay here after what Mum said. She told me I was no daughter of hers. Besides, I was leaving anyway.’
‘Well, I can understand Mum being upset. You know she’s always going on about us being a respectable family.’
Sheila laughed. ‘Respectable! Then why did she marry Bert after my dad was killed? She must’ve known what he was like. And letting me work for Tommy, of all people. I knew his reputation before I ever got the job.’