Authors: Roberta Grieve
Dad was still in bed, sleeping off a night on the booze, when Mary called Ellie to get up. She had just come home from her shift at the hospital and looked even more tired than usual.
‘You should get some rest, Mum,’ Ellie said, coming into the kitchen to see her leaning against the sink.
‘I’ll have a lie down when your dad gets up,’ Mary said. ‘I need to get a few jobs done first.’
‘I’ll help,’ Ellie said.
‘No, love. You pop round to Gran’s and give her a hand with her packing.’
Ellie insisted on making some toast for her mother before grabbing her cardigan off the back of a chair.
‘I won’t be too long’ she called, running down the stairs and out of the side door.
Although she was somewhat anxious about what Gran would think of her working for Tommy Green, Ellie was feeling a bit better about it now. Mum wouldn’t let her take the job unless she was sure it was a respectable place.
As she turned the corner, intending to cut across the waste ground, she stopped short. The fence had been mended and beyond it bulldozers were busy churning up the rubble that had been her playground for as long as she could remember. She supposed that before long one of those giant blocks, ten or twelve storeys high, would be casting its gigantic shadow over her grandmother’s sunny back garden.
Then she remembered, with a pang, that Gran wouldn’t be there to mind. Her house would also be fodder for the jaws of the bulldozers before long. Ellie wished they could have waited till her grandmother had moved out before starting work. It must be hard to see the destruction of the place you’d lived all your life and where you had such happy memories, for Gran often said that despite the war and the bombs, there had been good times.
Ellie called a cheerful greeting as she opened the back door, expecting that the old lady would need cheering up. She was standing by the kitchen window watching the workmen. But to Ellie’s surprise she didn’t seem at all upset.
‘About time they did something about that eyesore,’ she said, turning as Ellie came in.
‘Are they building flats?’
‘I hope so. There’s so many people needing homes. Flo – her what lives next door to Vi – well, she’s got her daughter living with her and four kids, not to mention her own two boys just back from doing their National Service. And there’s Dot’s boy – wants to get married but says he won’t start married life with his in-laws. Been on the council list three years, he has.’
Ellie busied herself with kettle and teapot while her grandmother rambled on about friends and acquaintances. She had to admit that she hadn’t thought about things from that point of view, although people often remarked how lucky they were to have the flat above Solly’s shop. She was just sorry that the little streets with their shops on every corner were gradually disappearing under a sea of concrete. The thought that Gran’s house, her refuge throughout her troubled childhood, wouldn’t be there any more was depressing. She’d heard someone say that the planners were doing more damage to the East End of London than all the German bombers during the war, and she’d thought they were right.
Gran, despite her sympathy for the homeless, was angry with the planners too. ‘It makes me so mad,’ she said. ‘Vi and me went to the pictures last night and what were they showing on the newsreels – this street, can you believe? And the bulldozers over the back there. Building a new East End, they said, getting rid of the slums.’ Gran took an indignant breath. ‘Calling my ’ouse a slum – how dare they?’
Ellie was sympathetic. She’d heard similar remarks from some of the girls at school. They seemed to think that everyone living east of Tower Bridge lived in the utmost poverty and degradation. They were poor, yes, but not destitute. So what if their houses did have outside toilets and no bathroom? That didn’t mean they lived in squalor.
‘Have you heard anything definite – about the new flat?’ she asked when Gran eventually paused for breath.
‘No, not yet. But Auntie Vi’s got her letter, so I should hear soon.’
‘Well, we’d better get on with your packing then, hadn’t we, Gran?’
She ran up the stairs, while her grandmother followed more slowly, groaning at the strain on her arthritic knees.
Two hours later she carried the last of the boxes of rubbish downstairs and dumped it by the back door. Old Blakey, the rag-and-bone man, could take them away when he next came by with his horse and cart.
The bits and pieces Gran would be taking to the new flat were now neatly packed into cardboard boxes and stacked in the small back bedroom.
‘We’ll make a start on the front room tomorrow, Gran,’ Ellie said as she washed her hands and tidied her hair. It was amazing how much dust you stirred up once you started moving things about, she thought, even in a house as clean and tidy as Gran’s always was.
As she got ready to leave she turned to her grandmother. ‘You’re not too sad about leaving are you, Gran?’
‘I am a bit, love,’ Lou admitted. ‘But it’s for the best. No more stairs, not to mention indoor plumbing – what more could I ask at my time of life?’
But as Ellie stepped out into the rain, which was still pelting down, she couldn’t help thinking that her grandmother was trying to make the best of things.
Although Mary knew she should get some sleep, she couldn’t face getting into bed while Bert was still there. Usually, after a night shift on the casualty ward, she would fall into oblivion for several hours, waking just before midday. After going down to the shops or the market to get something for dinner she’d have time to clean the flat and get a meal ready. Then, if Bert wasn’t home, she could enjoy a couple of hours relaxing with her sewing or knitting until it was time to get ready for work again.
She went into the bedroom intending to wake him, but as she looked down at him, she wrinkled her nose at the blast of beery breath that wafted towards and her stomach recoiled in disgust at what he’d become.
She turned away. Let him lie there, she thought. Better than having to listen to his whining hard-done-by attitude, his insistence that everything wrong in his life was someone else’s fault. How she hated him and his idea that everything could be solved by bullying and violence. True, the war had left its mark on him – though she was beginning to think the shattered leg that had left him with a permanent limp was not the heroic war wound he’d made it out to be.
But then, she thought, everyone she knew had suffered in some way or other. Hadn’t she been left a widow with two young children to bring up? And people were still paying even now, years after the war had ended – her mum and Auntie Vi, turned out of their homes, Frank dying in the mental hospital, Jim….
Mary choked back a sob. She wouldn’t dwell on it – couldn’t – otherwise she’d never get through the day. She must make the best of it. Bert was her husband. No one had forced her to marry him and, if it hadn’t turned out the way she’d hoped, there was nothing she could do about it. But since Harry and Sheila had left home, she felt so alone. Ellie was too young to understand.
And Ellie was the one she should be thinking of now. She was a good girl, always willing to give a hand with the chores or run errands.
If only she’d been able to persuade Bert to let her stay on at school. She’d done so well in her exams and she deserved a chance. But proud as she was of her daughter’s determination to succeed and her willingness to work for what she wanted, she knew it was no use trying to get Bert to change his mind.
She still wasn’t happy about this job though. It was bad enough her husband getting involved with the gangster again, but the thought of Ellie working for Tommy Green worried her. Mary thought it was unlikely that her friends knew of the gangster’s new business venture but she still dreaded anyone finding out that her daughter had anything to do with him. Once more she wished she’d had the strength to stand up to Bert and insist that Ellie find another job. Tommy Green had already caused enough trouble in this family. Although she had softened towards Sheila, and was pleased she seemed happy, she felt shame at people knowing her daughter was living with a married man and a criminal at that. It was only the thought of never knowing her grandchild that had softened her attitude. She smiled at the thought that soon she would be a grandmother, but the smile changed to a frown at the thought of the sort of world she or he might grow up in.
Bert grunted, snorting and muttering, and Mary hurried out of the room. If he woke up and saw her he’d be pawing at her and demanding his ‘rights’ and she was in no mood to put up with it today. Not that he did that so often these days and she wondered if he was getting his satisfaction elsewhere. There was a time when she’d been worried that he might be after Sheila – there’d been something in the way he looked at her. But she couldn’t bring herself to believe he’d do such a thing.
Ellie was on her way back from her grandmother’s when she saw Mary struggling with a heavy bag of shopping. She ran to catch up with her. ‘Mum, I thought you were going to bed.’
‘I decided to go down the market first – needed a bit of fresh air.’
Ellie took the bag without replying. She thought she knew why Mum had gone out instead of getting her much needed rest. She just hoped Dad had gone out before they got home.
As they turned the corner on their way back from the market, they saw Mr Solomons standing in the doorway of the shop. He was looking rather sombre but his lined old face creased in a smile as he spotted them.
‘Everything all right, Solly?’ Mary asked.
‘Could be worse, Mrs Tyler. Business isn’t too good these days – but I get by.’ He shook his white head.
Ellie smiled. She’d heard Mum saying that Mr Solomons did quite well from his second-hand furniture shop, especially now that more people were moving house these days. It was an opportunity to get rid of the sticks of cheap old stuff they’d started married life with. Solly sold good quality furniture which he bought from posh people who’d fallen on hard times or whose houses were being sold for death duties. But he always acted as if he were on the verge of bankruptcy.
Although he smiled as he chatted, Ellie could see he wasn’t his usual cheerful self. Maybe this time there really was something wrong. Her stomach started to churn as she remembered the boxes she’d seen in the yard a few weeks ago. She was sure they were stolen goods and that her father had had something to do with it. Had Solly found out – or worse still, had Dad done it again?
Ellie bit her lip as her mother asked Mr Solomons what was the matter, relaxing as he took a letter from his pocket. It was from the landlord, saying that the building had been sold and that he had until the end of the year to find somewhere else.
‘What about us?’ Ellie asked.
‘You’ll get a council place – a nice new house with a garden maybe. You’ll like that, won’t you – instead of this draughty old place?’
Ellie nodded doubtfully but Mary was smiling. ‘I’m looking forward to it.’ she said. ‘Anyway, what about you? It’s about time you retired and took things easy. It can’t be good for a man your age, having to lug buckets of coal up and downstairs.’
‘Ah, that’s where I miss young ’Arry,’ Solly said, with a shake of his head. ‘He’s a good lad – always ready to lend a hand. I expect you miss ’im too.’
Mary nodded sadly. ‘More than I can say. He’s always been just like a real son to me. Still, it won’t be too long before he’s home again.’
‘Well, when you apply for your council place, don’t forget to put him and his wife down as part of the family too – that way you’ll get a bigger house,’ Solly advised.
Ellie flinched at the reminder that when Harry returned to London he’d be bringing his German wife too. Even worse was the thought that they’d be living with them until they could get a place of their own. How could she bear seeing them together?
She sighed and listened impatiently as Solly rambled on.
‘I don’t want to move at all,’ he was saying. ‘Fifty years I’ve lived ’ere – brought me family up, saw them all go off and make their way in the world – except for my poor Sam.’ The old man paused and sniffed. His son had been killed in the war.
He wiped his nose and went on, ‘And when my Ada went, it was only having you and the kids around that kept me going.’ He put his hand on Ellie’s arm. ‘Take no notice, me dear. I’m just gettin’ maudlin in me old age.’
Ellie and her mother left the old man and went up to their flat.
‘Can they really turn us out?’ Ellie asked as she helped to put the shopping away.
‘Well, Solly has the house on a lease – they’ve always renewed it in the past but now the owner wants to sell. We’re only sub-tenants so we haven’t got a leg to stand on. Goodness knows what your dad’ll say, though. He hates the idea of a council flat.’
At least he’s not here to start a row, Ellie thought, seeing the
littered with dirty crockery. He must have dragged himself out of bed and gone to work.
Mary filled the kettle and lit the gas, then reached up to the mantelpiece for an envelope. ‘This came while you were out,’ she said.
Once upon a time Ellie would have snatched any letter from Harry and torn it open. Now, she sat down at the kitchen table with it but did not attempt to read it. ‘What does it say?’ she asked.
Mary gave her a funny look. ‘Why don’t you read it and find out?’
‘He’s coming home in a few days, he says.’ Mary’s lips thinned. ‘I suppose he’ll be bringing his wife – that Gerda.’
Ellie burst into tears.
‘Whatever’s the matter with you? I thought you’d be pleased. Our Harry’s coming home.’
‘But he’s not our Harry any more, is he? He’s Gerda’s now.’
Mum sighed and patted her shoulder. ‘You silly girl,’ she said affectionately.
Ellie shrugged her off. Mum just didn’t understand why she felt so wretched. It was jealousy pure and simple. If she truly loved him like a brother she ought to be glad he’d found someone to love. A year ago she would have been.