Authors: Roberta Grieve
He sighed, knowing he would never tell her the whole story now. Let her carry on thinking Bert was a wounded hero if it helped her to put up with him.
‘Cheer up, Sid. It might never ’appen,’ Maisie Jones shouted across from her second-hand clothes stall.
‘It already has,’ he said, pointing upwards. The rain had increased to a downpour and the awning was sagging under the weight of water.
‘Yeah. Wouldn’t send a dog out on a day like this. I’m packing up – won’t do no more trade today.’ Maisie started folding her goods and packing them into boxes.
‘I’ve had enough as well,’ Sid said.
‘What say we go for a cuppa and a bite to eat at Bob’s Café,’ Maisie said, ‘then you can tell me all your troubles.’
‘I might do that.’ Sid laughed. But he’d never tell her what was on his mind. Maisie was a good sort, but she did love a gossip. Sid’s unrequited love would be all round the market by next morning.
Ellie would have lingered over the shopping but her father had insisted she should go to see Mr Green about the receptionist’s job. Her feet started to drag as she neared Kendall Street and she felt that familiar churning in her stomach as she mounted the stairs.
Although Bert had more or less left her alone since that terrible night, she was still wary of him. He’d never referred to it directly but on several occasions when he’d been drinking he had made a grab for her, gripping her shoulders or running his hands up and down her body. All the while, he would mutter under his breath – comments on her growing up to be a lovely young woman, phrases such as ‘what do you expect, I’m only human after all?’ Worst of all, he would tell her over and over that she was still his little angel and he couldn’t help loving her.
With her mother near by, or if she was round at Gran’s, she could tell herself that she wasn’t to blame – and she almost believed it. But when her father talked like that and especially when he made insinuations about her feelings for Harry, she would begin to doubt herself.
Upstairs, she would look in the mirror, hunching her shoulders to flatten her bosom, pulling her skirt down over her knees and scraping her hair back from her face. As her reflection looked back at her, she would flush with shame and throw herself on the bed to let the tears come.
She was crying for the child she had been and the loss of that uncomplicated love she’d felt for the boy who had been her ‘big brother’. But she was crying for the future as well as the past. She could never let Harry know that the love she’d always felt for him had changed into a completely different emotion.
No, he deserved someone better, a respectable girl. Not someone like her – the sort of girl who could tempt even her own father to such unspeakable acts.
Locked in her misery, she forgot the way Bert had treated Sheila, not to mention the times as a very small child when she’d heard the sound of blows and his snarling voice demanding his rights, followed later by her mother’s stifled sobs.
In the depths of her hurt and shame she managed to rationalize Bert’s behaviour. Sheila, as her mother had so often said, was no better than she should be, she’d been ‘asking for it’. And as for her mother’s sufferings, Ellie unconsciously mimicked Auntie Vi’s opinion: ‘
she knew what he was like. She should never have married him
Ellie gazed around her, awestruck at the size of the wood-panelled room with its rich blue carpet, soft and thick underfoot, the desk of polished walnut behind which Tommy Green sat. In one corner was a small bar with soft lights glinting off the bottles ranged on the shelves behind.
Her father caught her eye and, with a satisfied grin, leaned back in the deep leather chair, puffing contentedly on the cigar that Mr Green had offered him.
‘Well, Ellen – or can I call you Ellie, seeing as you’re gonna be my sister-in-law before too long?’ Mr Green said, his eyes almost disappearing in the flesh of his perspiring face as he smiled at her.
Ellie nodded, wondering what her sister saw in him – apart from his wealth, of course.
‘I think you’re just the sort of girl I need as a receptionist.’ He leaned forward. ‘What do you say – would you like to work here?’
Ellie glanced at her father but he was gazing up at the wreaths of blue smoke drifting in the air, a self-satisfied smirk on his face. Emboldened by his apparent lack of interest in the conversation she tried to protest.
‘But, Mr Green….’
‘Call me Tommy, please.’
She couldn’t, she just couldn’t. ‘Mr Green, I don’t think I’m the type of person you’re looking for, really I don’t.’
The big man’s eyes narrowed. ‘And why’s that then?’
‘Well, working in a club – I’m not like Sheila, you see.’
To her surprise he burst out laughing. ‘I should say you’re not. But that’s why I want yer. This new place I’m openin’ is nothin’ like the Riverside. It’s gonna be real posh, up West. I want someone who looks the part, someone who talks nice, not too plummy but proper English – like you do.’
‘But what would I have to do?’ Ellie still wasn’t convinced.
‘I told yer – call me Tommy.’ He waved his cigar. ‘It’s simple – just answer the phone, take bookings for tables. Be there ter greet the guests.’
‘Is that all?’ Ellie smiled. He hadn’t said anything about having to ‘be nice’ to the guests. Her relief was short-lived.
‘’Course, you’d have to look right – dress up a bit, get yer’air done, make-up an’ all. Gotta impress the punters. But don’t worry – we’ll get yer rigged out before yer start.’
‘Mum doesn’t like me wearing make-up,’ she said tentatively.
Bert spoke up. ‘I’ll speak to yer mother.’
Tommy nodded. ‘She must realize yer growin’ up now – into a very attractive young lady if I might say so.’
Ellie squirmed as he went on, ‘I know you’re only sixteen but, with the right clothes, you’ll pass for eighteen.’ He paused, then continued, ‘Oh, I don’t mean I want yer all dolled up like a tart. I want a bit of class – you’ll fit in a treat.’ He smiled again and wagged his finger at her. ‘Who knows, if yer play yer cards right, yer could end up married ter some posh geezer with loadsa dough – maybe even a title.’
Bert nodded. ‘That’s what I’ve bin tellin’ her. It’s waste a time all this talk of paintin’ and drawin’. With her looks and brains, she’s got it made already.’
Tommy stared hard at Bert and gave a short laugh. ‘Don’t know where she gets it from – must be ’er mother.’
A flicker of anger crossed Bert’s face, quickly followed by a forced laugh. ‘Well, you know my Mary,’ he said, leaning forward to grind the cigar out in the crystal ashtray.
‘Well, that’s all settled then. The decorators and fitters ’ave nearly finished and we’re just waitin’ on the delivery of the furniture. We should be ready by the twentieth – that’s a Saturday night – for the grand opening. Better come along early afternoon and I can go through things with yer.’
He stood up and handed an envelope to Bert. ‘I think you’ll find there’s enough there to cover getting her all rigged out – and a bit over fer your expenses.’
Bert put the envelope inside his jacket. ‘Come on then. We’ve taken up enough of Tommy’s time,’ he said.
On the bus back to Kendall Street, Bert was in an expansive mood but Ellie hardly said a word. If only Mum had stuck up for her just this once. But Mary, once she’d been assured that there wouldn’t be any ‘funny business’, had seemed to accept the situation. Until Bert took the envelope out of his pocket and she saw how much money there was.
‘What’s that for?’ she asked, her lips coming together in that familiar thin line.
‘Clothes and things for our Ellie. Tommy wants her to look good when she starts work.’
‘We don’t need his money,’ Mary said. ‘Does he think we can’t take care of our own? I’ve got money put by.’
Bert laughed. ‘You’re too proud, you are. We’re doin’ him a favour, letting our Ellie work fer him. There’s not many girls round ’ere with her education who look the part. Tommy’s goin’ upmarket. He wants to be respected, not just an ex-boxer who’s made a bit of money wheeling and dealing.’
Mary didn’t reply. She picked up the bundle of notes and reached for her handbag. When Bert held out his hand, she peeled a few notes off and gave them to him. He gave her a hard look but she ignored him and calmly tucked the rest of the money into her purse.
‘We’ll need to go up West for her clothes if Tommy wants her to “look the part”. Can’t have our girl letting the side down can we?’ Her voice had a sarcastic edge, but as she turned to Ellie, she smiled. ‘Looks like you and me are going on a shopping spree, love.’ But Ellie detected a false note behind the gay tone.
Her own feelings were much the same. She should have been excited at the thought of choosing new clothes in the posh West End shops. Judith would have been green with envy but fashion and make-up had never really interested Ellie – only from the point of view of design. She’d often sketched out ideas for dresses and had even briefly considered going into the fashion business – after college of course. But her real interest was in textiles and soft furnishings.
She sighed. No good thinking about that. She smiled at her mother and, like her, pretended enthusiasm for the proposed shopping trip.
Bert gave a self-satisfied grin and put his arm round her. ‘I’m proud of yer, Angel. I told yer everything would work out all right if yer listened to yer dad. Tommy’ll see yer right, you’ll see.’ He kissed her cheek and gave her a squeeze, his hand brushing lightly against her breast. She tried not to flinch and instead stared hard at him, wishing she had the nerve to speak up and tell him that she’d do what he wanted if he agreed to leave her alone.
But he seemed to get the message and he averted his eyes. ‘I’m off,’ he said to Mary. ‘Don’t bother saving my dinner. I’ll eat out.’
When they’d finished their sausages and mash and washed the dishes afterwards, Ellie and her mother sat down on opposite sides of the range, enjoying the unaccustomed interlude of peace and quiet.
‘You’re a bit quiet, love,’ Mary said, as the sound of coals settling in the grate disturbed the silence. She had taken out her knitting, but the needles stilled and she leaned towards Ellie. ‘I know you’re disappointed – but you never really thought he’d let you go to college, did you?’
‘I suppose not. But I always hoped he’d change his mind once he saw how hard I’d worked.’ Ellie stood up with a defeated gesture. ‘I suppose I ought to write to Miss Evans – thank her for taking an interest in me. She’ll be so disappointed….’ Ellie almost started to cry, but she controlled herself. It was too late for tears. Hadn’t she always known it was just an impossible dream?
‘It’s no good crying, love. You’ve got to make the best of it,’ Mary said. Ellie wondered if the words were really intended for her – or if maybe her mother was thinking about her own life.
‘Did you have dreams and ambitions, Mum?’ she asked suddenly.
‘Of course – doesn’t everybody? But real life has a way of taking over – as you’ve just found out.’ Mary’s knitting was still idle in her lap and she stared into the fire.
‘What were your dreams, Mum?’ Ellie didn’t expect a reply.
Mary gave a little laugh. ‘Oh, the usual silly romantic notions,’ she said. ‘And of course, I always wanted to be a nurse but I never got to be sister as I’d planned.’ She turned to Ellie, smiling. ‘But I didn’t mind, you see, because I married Jim and we had Sheila. I was so happy – then the war started….’ Her voice trailed away.
‘Gran told me about the bomb – and how you took Harry in after his mother was killed.’
‘Yes, well, Anne and me were close, like sisters. I couldn’t do anything else really. I’ve never regretted it. Harry’s been like a real son to me.’
Ellie didn’t want to talk about Harry. The shock of his sudden marriage was still too painful. But she didn’t want her mother to stop. It was so rare for her to speak about the past and even rarer for her to exchange confidences with her daughter. It was a moment to treasure. She seized the moment to ask, ‘Why don’t Dad and Harry get on?’
‘Difficult to explain really. As you know, Dad and Frank – Harry’s father – were friends before the war. When we decided to get married, I assumed he’d be only too pleased to take on Frank’s boy. After all, he accepted Sheila. He told me he liked the idea of being a family man – and of course you were on the way too.’
Ellie looked up, startled. She’d worked out for herself that her parents had married in haste – that was why she’d found it hard to understand her mother’s anger and disappointment when first Sheila, then Harry, had made the same mistake. But Mary had never openly spoken of it.
Her mother coloured and looked away. ‘We tend to blame everything on the war and I suppose it’s hard for you to understand how things were. We felt our lives were being destroyed; we’d lost our homes, our loved ones – it was only natural to live for the moment.’
Ellie didn’t understand. If the person she loved most in the world had been killed, she was sure she’d never want someone to take his place – let alone only a few months later.
Mary seemed to sense her confusion. ‘I’m not making excuses, love. I was almost demented when I got the news about Jim. Me and Anne had been evacuated to Norfolk with our children. But when we heard, we came back to London – couldn’t stand being away from our parents and family. Besides, Frank was in hospital in Kent and Anne wanted to be able to visit him. But she never did get there – the bomb got her first.’
She got up abruptly and poked the fire, pulling the kettle over the flames.
Ellie held her breath. Don’t stop now, she thought. It was the first time her mother had ever spoken of those far-off days. Most of what she knew of her family background had been gleaned from eavesdropping on Gran and Auntie Vi or when poring through Gran’s family albums.
Mary sat down again, took up her knitting and went on: ‘I went down to see Frank – but he didn’t know me. He kept asking for Anne – couldn’t seem to take in that she was dead.’
She sighed. ‘That’s when I promised him I’d look after Harry – and I was determined to keep that promise. I don’t think your dad ever really forgave me for sticking to it. He felt I had enough to do with Sheila, and you on the way.’
‘So how come you and Dad got married then? He was in the army wasn’t he?’
‘Yes, but he’d been wounded and was later invalided out. I met him at the hospital when I went to see Frank. I knew him before – we all grew up together. Used to go over Victoria Park on Sundays – swimming in the lido, boating on the lake. But I never took much notice of Bert.’ She smiled in reminiscence. ‘Jim was always the one for me.’
Ellie smiled too, recalling the photo in Gran’s album. Not for the first time she wished he’d been her dad instead of Bert. She just couldn’t understand why Mum had fallen in love again so quickly – she’d remarried less than a year later.
‘Jim was very good-looking,’ she remarked now. ‘I’ve seen his photo in Gran’s album.’
‘Well, looks aren’t everything you know, Ellie,’ Mum said. ‘But I was lucky – he was a good man too.’
Ellie stood up and got the tea caddy off the shelf, avoiding her mother’s eyes. Mary still hadn’t told her what she wanted to know, and she couldn’t ask. She spooned tea leaves into the pot, poured the boiling water over them, then sat down and waited for the tea to brew.
‘I know what you’re thinking, Ellie,’ Mary said sharply.
Ellie made a gesture of protest but she couldn’t deny that compared with Jim Scott, her own father left a lot to be desired.
Mary’s shoulders slumped. ‘I can’t blame you for the way you feel – Bert hasn’t exactly been a good father. But he wasn’t always like this, you know – it was the war. Losing his friends, being wounded and not able to work. He turned to the drink when he was in pain and that’s what changed him.’ Mary took a sip of her tea and in a very low voice said, ‘I felt sorry for him.’
And you’ve been sorry ever since. Ellie only just stopped herself saying the words aloud. It was the sort of thing Auntie Vi would say. She felt ashamed of the thought. Besides, it wasn’t Mum’s fault. She’d always done her best for her family – even for Bert. He was too selfish to appreciate it but you couldn’t blame the war for that.
Mary seemed to sense Ellie’s thoughts and she gave a little half-laugh. ‘Not much of a basis for marriage is it?’ She picked up the cups, emptied the teapot and rinsed it while Ellie dried up and put the things away.
Before they sat down again Mary put her arm round Ellie’s shoulders in an unaccustomed gesture of affection. ‘I’ve had many regrets over the years – but I’ve never regretted having you, love,’ she said. ‘I just hope your sister feels the same in years to come.’
‘Mr Green told me they’re getting married. Will you go to the wedding?’ Ellie asked.
‘If I’m invited. She’s still my daughter when all’s said and done,’ Mary said. ‘She should have waited though. It’ll be a long time before people round here let her live it down.’
Ellie thought Mary was more concerned about the gossip than Sheila was. She sighed and stood up, bent and kissed her mother on the cheek. When Mary smiled and patted her hand, Ellie felt a lightening of her heart. She wished they could always be this close.
As she climbed into bed, she decided that as soon as possible she would go and see Sheila and make sure her mother got an invitation to the wedding.