Authors: Roberta Grieve
‘So why did you agree to work there then?’ Ellie asked.
‘It was the only way I could see of getting out of this dump. I meet a lot of blokes – blokes with money – at the club.’ She laughed again. ‘Never thought I’d hit it off with the boss though.’
She picked up her case and went to the door. ‘Look after yourself, kid. Don’t let the old man get you down.’ She gave that bitter little laugh again. ‘It ain’t so bad, once you get used to it.’
Ellie nodded but she didn’t believe her, and she didn’t think Sheila believed it either. She’s just trying to make me feel better, she thought.
Sheila dropped the case and gave her a hug. ‘Just try to keep out of his way. If Mum goes to work and leaves you by yourself, go down and sit with Solly. You’ll be safe with him.’ Then she was gone.
Ellie sat on the bed for a long time, listening to the silence. Mum would be off to her night shift at the hospital soon and she would be alone, really alone. Harry had gone and now Sheila had deserted her. None of them really cared, she thought as the tears rolled down her cheeks.
When Mary called up the stairs a little later she managed to reply in what she hoped was a normal voice.
She replaced the chair under the doorknob but she knew that if Bert really wanted to get in, nothing would stop him. She slowly undressed, folding her white school blouse and navy gymslip and hanging them neatly over the back of the chair. Her maroon blazer went on a hanger behind the door. Then she realized she had to go downstairs to clean her teeth and go to the toilet.
Best get it over with, she thought, pulling an old cardigan over her thin nightdress. She crept to the top of the stairs and peered down into the darkness. She made it past her parents’ room and the kitchen, down to the ground floor where Mr Solomons had his living quarters behind the shop. The bathroom and toilet they shared with their landlord was at the end of a long dark passage.
Ellie hated it, especially when everyone was out. Still it was better than having to go outside like Gran, she thought, as she crept along, her hand on the wall feeling her way. As she grasped the knob of the bathroom door the sound of the toilet flushing made her stomach leap and her heartbeat quickened. It’s only Solly, she reassured herself, but she ran back to the foot of the stairs, clinging to the newel post and chewing her fingernails.
The door opened, spilling light out into the passage, and her father staggered out, dragging his bad leg and mumbling to himself. He was drunk and Ellie hoped that he’d pass out before he realized she was alone in the house.
She crept up the stairs and crouched at the bottom of the next flight, listening to his mumbled obscenities. ‘Abused my trust, ’e did. My old mate Tommy, carrying on like that. Would never ’ave let ’er work there if I’d er known.’ He stumbled as he reached the landing and Ellie shrank back into the darkness. ‘Still, she prob’ly led ’im on. Always was a little tart. Well, it’s good riddance to ’er. I’ve still got my little angel.’
He pulled himself up, clutching the newel post and calling out in a wheedling voice. ‘Angel, where are you, pet? Come and give Daddy a goodnight kiss.’
Ellie shuffled up one more stair on her bottom, hoping he wouldn’t spot the movement, but he looked up.
‘Oh there you are, Angel. Waiting for Daddy to come ’ome, were yer?’
His shadowy form loomed over her and she could smell the beer and cigarettes on his breath. Even in the darkness she knew he’d be wearing that glazed smile he always had when he wanted her to be ‘nice’ to him.
If she ran up to her room and put the chair against the door, she’d be OK. He could hardly stand. Surely he wouldn’t be able to get upstairs without falling. But she knew that, despite his old war injury, he could sometimes move with surprising speed. She inched herself up, back against the wall, and had been ready to turn and run when his hand shot out and grasped her ankle.
She struggled to escape but he held on with determined strength, dragging her along the passage. Her head banged on the floor and when it cleared she found herself on the kitchen floor with Bert looming over her. As his body covered hers and his hands fumbled with her nightdress, she turned her head away from the sour taste of his breath. She bit her lip, the metallic taste of blood overwhelming the smell of his beery breath in her face.
A coal shifted in the grate nearby and flared up, throwing Bert’s shadow on to the wall behind him. Ellie looked away, trying to shut out the sounds and images, and most of all the sick shameful feeling of what he was doing to her. Her cheek rested against the rough rag rug Mary had made from the family’s old coats and jumpers, and from the corner of her eye she could see the little wooden stool Harry had made in woodwork lessons.
Bert’s hands were all over her and she scrabbled around trying to find something to hit him with. But as her fingers closed over the coal shovel, he gave a sigh and passed out, pinning her to the floor with his body.
The rattling of the curtains on their brass rings brought Ellie awake. Wind-blown rain rattled against the window.
‘Come on, sleepy-head,’ her mother said. ‘You’ll be late for school.’
Ellie tried to sit up, her bruised body protesting against the movement, and memory flooded back. She closed her eyes as Mary approached the bed and asked, ‘Are you all right, love? You look a bit flushed.’
‘I don’t feel well,’ Ellie said. It wasn’t a lie. Her head ached and she felt bruised and sore all over.
Her mother gave a short laugh. ‘If it was your sister staying in bed on a school day, I’d think she was swinging the lead. But you wouldn’t miss school for anything.’ She sat down on the edge of the bed and felt Ellie’s forehead. ‘You are poorly, love. Have you got a tummy-ache as well?’ Ellie nodded ‘I’ll fetch you up a drink and hot water bottle. Try and go back to sleep.’
After she’d gone, closing the door quietly behind her, Ellie forced herself to think back to last night. She hardly remembered crawling into bed. Thank goodness Dad had passed out before she hit him. She could imagine his rage if she had dared to fight back. When she was little she had tried to protest and he told her it was his way of showing that he loved her. She was his little ‘Angel’, wasn’t she? But recently things had been different. And now that Sheila was gone, she was more afraid than ever.
Sometimes she wondered whether it was her fault. Mum had told her off loads of times for walking around the house in her nightie. Respectable girls didn’t show off their bodies when there were men around, she said. That must be it then. Dad didn’t think she was a respectable girl, so he could do what he liked. Perhaps he didn’t love her any more.
She choked back a sob. She’d tried so hard to be good, determined to make the most of her chance at grammar school and make something of her life. But what was the use of trying? She’d just end up like Sheila, working at that awful club and having to be nice to horrible old men.
Her mother’s footsteps clattered up the stairs and she slid further down in the bed, pulling the blanket up over her ears.
‘Here’s your drink, Ellie. And the hottie. I’m just popping down the market but I won’t be long.’
Ellie kept her eyes closed as Mary tucked the hot-water bottle under the blanket and leaned over, brushing her cheek with her lips. When she heard the door close, she sat up and took a sip of the tea, which her mother had placed on a chair by the bed.
The hot drink helped a little but what she really wanted was a bath. As well as being bruised and battered, she felt unclean. But she couldn’t bring herself to get out of bed and make her way down the two flights of stairs. And she couldn’t face the battle with the big gas geyser on the wall which didn’t always work properly, sometimes gushing out boiling water, sometimes just a trickle of cold. Harry could always fix it though. He seemed to have a knack with mechanical things. Despite her misery, Ellie felt a smile beginning – as it always did when she thought of her brother.
The smile disappeared as memory flooded back. Not her brother; not even a stepbrother or cousin, as she’d always thought. If she’d got it right, Harry was no relation at all. The thought brought a funny feeling in her stomach and she remembered the way he had kissed her goodbye after his last leave. Since then, she’d found herself thinking about him all the time. She wasn’t interested in boys – not like some of the girls at school, always whispering in corners. But since Gran’s revelations she had dared to think that, maybe, Harry looked on her as more than a sister. The knot in her stomach grew as she realized that, if he knew what had happened last night, he would never love her.
She lay with her face to the wall, thinking about the day before. Since calling in to see Gran on her way home from school yesterday, she’d almost forgotten their talk, what with the row and Sheila storming out. Then her father coming home drunk and….
Ellie’s mind sheered away from the thought. But she was determined it wouldn’t happen again. It might have been her own fault this time; she still wasn’t sure about that. But if he did try it on again, she’d run away, go and live with Gran. With Sheila and Harry gone, there was nothing to keep her here. Only Mum. But she didn’t really care. Why else would she work at nights, leaving her alone with Dad? It wasn’t as if they really needed the money. Dad had been in work for years now.
With a guilty start, she thought of her mother’s tired, careworn face, the tender touch as she’d tucked her in bed only a little while ago. Of course Mum cared. She just didn’t know what was going on, that’s all. And how could she add to her worries? Not to mention her father’s anger if she told.
Ellie sighed. Did all families have these problems, she wondered?
Wherever her agitated thoughts went they always came back to Harry – her big brother and champion ever since she could remember. She’d never questioned his relationship to the rest of the family. After all, Sheila was her sister and her surname was the same as Harry’s. Mum’s first husband, Jim Scott, had been killed at Dunkirk, leaving her with two children to bring up. Less than a year later she’d married Bert Tyler and Ellie was born soon after – too soon, Auntie Vi often said with a sniff.
It was Judith’s teasing that had prompted Ellie’s curiosity. On the way home from school yesterday her friend had said carelessly, ‘I know you think of him as your brother, but you’re not really related are you?’
‘Of course we are. My mum’s first husband was killed in the war. That’s why Sheila and Harry are called Scott.’
‘Perhaps I’ve got it wrong then,’ Judith said.
Of course she’d got it wrong, Ellie thought. But she tackled Gran about it all the same. It was no good talking to her mother. But Gran needed no excuse to get out the old photograph album and start reminiscing about ‘before the war’.
The old lady had been sitting in her armchair in front of the gas fire. She looked tired but she greeted Ellie with a warm smile. ‘If you want a cup of tea, love, you’ll have to make it. My old legs are playing up something cruel these days.’
As she went through to the scullery out the back and put the kettle on, Ellie thought perhaps she shouldn’t bring the subject up if her grandmother wasn’t feeling well.
But when she went through with the tea tray, Gran was sitting up and looking more wide-awake. ‘It’s good to see you, Ellie love. Where have you been hiding yourself lately?’ she asked.
Ellie told her about Miss Evans, the art mistress, picking her to help paint and design the scenery for the school play.
Gran smiled. ‘You always did like your painting and drawing, didn’t you?’ She pointed to the mantelpiece, where a brightly painted picture of a fairground hung. ‘I’ll always keep it. Looks good in the frame our ’Arry made, don’t it?’
‘I did one for Harry too,’ Ellie said. ‘To thank him for taking me to the fair.’
‘Well, you’re a good little artist – I will say that. Though what good it’ll be to yer when you leave school, I don’t know. The things they teach yer at this school of your’n.’
‘Miss Evans says I’m good enough to go to art college,’ Ellie said proudly. ‘She’s put me in for a scholarship.’
‘I wouldn’t get yer ’eart set on it, love. You can guess what your dad’ll have to say about that.’ Gran took a noisy slurp of her tea.
Ellie didn’t answer. She knew in her heart that Gran was right. But it didn’t hurt to dream, did it? She changed the subject, asking if any jobs needed doing.
‘No thanks, love. Your mum was round earlier.’ She started coughing and Ellie hurried to get her medicine. ‘What with this chest and me legs,’ she wheezed, trying to smile. ‘Don’t worry, girl. I’ll be all right.’
Ellie poured out more tea, wondering how to bring up the subject that had filled her mind recently. Gran was stroking Buster, the cat, who’d jumped up on her lap and was now purring loudly. He was getting old too, and spent most of his time dozing – just like Gran, Ellie thought, as the old lady’s head started nodding.
She got up, intending to creep out quietly. But she couldn’t leave without finding answers to the questions Judith’s remarks had prompted. She was almost sixteen. She ought to know about her family. She went over to the sideboard and took out the old photo album. She carried it to the table near the window.
She paged through until she came to the pictures of her mother’s wedding to Jim Scott. There was Mary, small and dark, smiling up at Jim. Ellie recognized him from the photo Harry had kept beside his bed. Her mother’s friend Anne stood beside her and on the other side was the best man, Jim’s brother. What was his name? Frank, that was it – the one Gran didn’t like to talk about. He would be Sheila and Harry’s uncle. Ellie wondered what had happened to him. Did he die in the war too?
She turned to ask but a muffled snore from the armchair stopped her. She looked again at the pictures of Jim and his brother, remembering Sid Varney’s tales of growing up with her father and the Scott brothers. What was it he’d said? ‘
two peas in a pod, they were.’
Ellie held the album up to the window. Yes, they were alike, tall and fair – just like Harry and Sheila.
She felt a thrill of excitement as she realized what this meant. If only Gran would wake up so that she could ask her. She turned the pages quickly, but that was the only picture with both the young men in it. A little further on was a snapshot of a young woman holding a baby, a toddler by her side. She thought it was Anne, but it was too blurred to be really sure.
As she put the album down, Gran gave a little snort and opened her eyes. Buster stretched lazily and jumped down from her lap.
Gran stretched and yawned. ‘Oh dear, I’ve let the tea go cold. You should’ve woken me, love.’
‘I’ll make some fresh,’ Ellie offered, jumping up and taking the tray.
When she came back a few minutes later, Gran was poring over the album. ‘You always did like looking at the old pictures,’ she said, looking up with a smile. ‘I only get to see them when you’re here.’
‘I wish you’d tell me about the people in the photos, Gran. I know you don’t like talking about the war, but they’re my family too – even if I never knew most of them.’
‘You’re right, Ellie love. I forget how quickly you’re growing up.’ She sighed. ‘Sometimes it all seems like only yesterday. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. I suppose it’s knowing I’ve got to move soon that’s brought it all back to me.’
Gran shifted in her chair and took a sip of tea. ‘I remember that night like yesterday. We were all down the shelter – but others weren’t so lucky.’
Her eyes misted and Ellie said quickly. ‘Don’t talk about it, Gran, if it upsets you.’
‘No. It was a long time ago. Well, you know your mum was married to Jim Scott. And her best friend Anne married his twin brother, Frank. Nice boys….’
‘Mr Varney told me they were all in the army together – Dad as well,’ Ellie said.
‘That’s right – they couldn’t wait to join up when the war started. Anne had a little boy and your mum was expecting too. But they didn’t think about that, did they?’ The old lady’s voice trailed away again.
‘What happened?’ Ellie asked, willing Gran to finish the story. She wanted to know what had happened to Anne and her little boy, although she’d already guessed the answer.
Gran sighed again and went on, ‘Things were pretty quiet at first. But they made the women take the children to the country because they knew there’d be bombing. The older kids went on their own but toddlers had their mums with them.’ She shifted in her chair. ‘There weren’t any bombs, so after a bit they came back – your mum and Anne. They hated the quiet of the country and they missed their friends and families.’
Ellie leaned closer to catch her grandmother’s next words. ‘The blitz – the bloody blitz started, didn’t it? Night after night. But Mary insisted on staying here with me. I begged them to go back to the country.’
Gran’s eyes filled with tears and Ellie took her hand, rubbing the cold fingers. ‘Don’t get upset, Gran. You don’t have to talk about it, you know. I’m sorry I reminded you.’
But the old lady was determined to finish the story now. ‘I’m reminded of it every time I look out of my window,’ she said bitterly, gesturing towards the patch of weed-ridden waste ground beyond the net curtains. ‘That’s where the big one fell, right where Anne’s house was. My Bill – your grandad – was a warden. He had to help dig them out. The whole family – killed in one go. He never forgot it – was never the same man after that. Poor Bill.’
Ellie patted Gran’s hand. She didn’t know what to say. Until now, ‘during the war’ and ‘before the war’ had just been stories. She could hardly remember it. She’d been just a toddler when the doodlebugs came.
‘Well, it was all a long time ago,’ Gran said with a sigh. She straightened in the chair. ‘One good thing happened though. It was sheer fluke, they said. But they rescued the little boy….’
‘It was Harry, wasn’t it?’ Ellie said eagerly. ‘He was Anne’s little boy.’
‘That’s right, love. Didn’t you know?’
‘No one ever told me. I’ve only just realized – something Judith said.’
‘I thought you knew. Anyway, your mum looked after him – said she would treat him like her own until Jim and Frank got back from the war. Then Jim was killed and Frank – poor Frank.’
Gran’s voice trailed away again and Ellie couldn’t bring herself to ask what had happened. Instead she asked if her mother had adopted Harry.
‘Not officially,’ Gran said. ‘And when she married Bert, he wanted her to give him up – put him in a home. But she wouldn’t. It’s the only time I’ve known her to stand up for herself. Bert couldn’t budge her. She said she’d promised Anne and that was that.’
Good for Mum, Ellie thought.
‘Of course, she’d have had to give him up if Frank had come home,’ Gran said. ‘Poor Frank – he was worse off than the ones who were killed, if you ask me. Bad enough being wounded, but his mind went, poor lad. He was in one of them special hospitals. Your mum went down there once to let him know how Harry was. But he didn’t even know her. Kept asking for Anne.’