Authors: Roberta Grieve
When had it all changed, she asked herself? Was it when she discovered he wasn’t her brother after all? Or when she had kissed him goodbye and he had told her she was special?
She’d dared to hope that that meant he felt the same way, that by the time he came home from the army he would be ready to tell her so. But from his letters she’d begun to realize how wrong she’d been. And now there was no hope for her.
Was it really love she felt for him? How could you tell? People would say she was too young to know for sure. It was like the song said. Every time she heard Nat King Cole on the wireless singing: ‘
They try to tell us we’re too young
’, she thought the song might have been written just for her.
As the thoughts churned in her head Ellie stood up, her legs unsteady, and stumbled out of the kitchen. She had to get away from Mum’s questioning.
Maybe Gran would understand. But when she got there, Auntie Vi was sitting in the kitchen gossiping.
‘What’s up with you then?’ she asked. ‘Dad playing up?’
‘Harry’s coming home – bringing his wife. I hate her,’ Ellie said.
‘Yer must’ve realized he’d find a girl one day, you soppy thing,’ Auntie Vi said. She turned to Gran. ‘I always said it wasn’t ’ealthy, the way she mooned after ’im all the time.’
‘Leave the girl alone, Vi. She’s probably only upset because ’Arry’s getting married out there in Germany and she couldn’t be a bridesmaid,’ Lou said.
Ellie gave her a grateful smile. She wondered if Gran understood more than she let on and was covering up for her. Anyway, it wouldn’t hurt to let Vi think that was why she was upset if it stopped her asking questions.
She didn’t stay long, unable to face the two old ladies going on about Harry and his new wife. As she wandered back through the market, she tried to tell herself she didn’t care. Her love for Harry was just that of a younger sister for a big brother, wasn’t it? She’d been stupid to think it was anything else – stupid, too, to think that he felt anything like the romantic love of her imagination. But to get a girl into trouble and have to get married…. How could he do it?
Back home she went up to her room and picked up the snapshot of Harry in his army uniform. With a little sob, she thrust it into the drawer, pushing it deep under her spare jumpers. Her lips set in a thin straight line. The people you loved always let you down in the end. But she’d always have her art – and her ambition. From now on, she’d put away those childish thoughts of love and romance.
She’d work hard and save her money. Then, when she was old enough to do what she liked without needing anyone’s permission, she’d go to college. Nothing was going to stop her achieving her ambition.
When she went downstairs, the inevitable row was going on. Mum looked as if she was about to burst into tears and Dad was prowling about the room clenching and unclenching his fists. His braces hung down over his trousers and a cigarette dangled from his unshaven face. He never bothered when he was at home, though he could look smart enough when he was meeting Tommy Green and his mates.
Ellie paused in the doorway and looked at him, not bothering to hide her disgust. And Mum wondered why she never brought any of her friends home? She tried to slip past, hoping to get out of the house before they noticed her.
But Bert turned in his pacing and spotted her. ‘I suppose you’re going to stick up for ’is nibs an’ all,’ he snarled. ‘Well, that cocky little bleeder’s not coming here expecting a ready-made ’ome for ’imself and that woman.’ He banged his fist on the table. ‘I won’t ’ave it.’
Mary thumped the iron down. ‘I already told you, Bert. He’s no intention of living with us.’ She gave a short laugh, which quickly turned to a strangled sob. ‘He couldn’t wait to get away, if you must know. Anyway, he’s decided to stay in the army – make a career out of it. He’ll only be home for a few days, then he’s been posted to Sheerness.’
Ellie noticed that her mother didn’t mention Gerda. Mum was just as unhappy about Harry’s impending marriage as she was – if for different reasons.
Bert gave a little grunt and sat down. ‘That’s good – ’cause I wouldn’t ’ave ’im ’ere anyway,’ he said, determined to have the last word.
But Mary wouldn’t let it rest. ‘Besides, we might not have a home ourselves for long. I told you Solly’s been given notice to quit when the lease runs out. So it might be a good idea to get off your backside and start looking for another flat,’ she said.
Ellie gasped. Mum must be really upset to talk to Dad like that. She stepped forward, heart thumping, as Bert leapt up and raised his bunched fist towards her mother.
He must have seen her quick move of protest and his hand fell to his side. He smiled sheepishly at her. ‘I keep telling yer mother not ter worry, Angel. I know who’s bought this place and they’ve said we can stay on after Solly goes. Besides, our name’s on the council list, so if it comes to the worst, we’ll get a place.’
Ellie hoped they would get a council flat. She’d been looking forward to moving out of the draughty old house and having a decent kitchen and bathroom. And wouldn’t it be smashing if they got a place in the same block as Gran? Then, when things got difficult at home, she could pop in and keep the old lady company.
To her relief, Dad dropped the subject, asking Mary how much longer she’d be ironing his shirt. ‘I got an important meeting with my business associates,’ he said, thrusting out his puny chest.
Ellie couldn’t help smiling inwardly but the smile soon faded when her father turned to her.
‘They’ve finished work on the new club. Grand opening tomorrer and Tommy wants you there – all dressed up in your new finery. You lookin’ forward to it?’
When Ellie hesitated, he reached out and grabbed her wrist. She glanced anxiously at her mother but Mary carried on ironing, all her attention apparently on getting the minutest creases out of Bert’s shirt collar.
Bert stroked her hair. ‘Looks nice like that,’ he said. ‘But you don’t look like my little girl any more.’ He pushed her away. ‘Still, it’s a good chance for yer so make the most of it. You’ll do all right for yerself – just like Sheila.’
The iron thumped down again. Mum always got upset at any mention of Sheila. Getting involved with a married man, and a criminal at that, wasn’t what Mary thought of as doing all right. Ellie agreed with her. She resolved that she would just do the job until she could afford to get away – by her own efforts, not the influence of some rich man.
She was about to say so but Mary shook her head, handing the shirt to her husband. He let go of Ellie’s wrist and shrugged into it, grabbed his jacket and left the room.
When he’d gone, Mary hugged her daughter wordlessly. Ellie knew Mum was on her side, but she was too frightened of Bert’s temper to stand up for either of them. She’d just have to do what she was told – for the time being, that was.
She went back up to her room and opened the wardrobe door, trying to imagine herself all dressed up in the clothes which now hung there – long dresses in black, midnight blue or dark green, with matching stole and gloves, as elegant as anything the guests at the club might wear. The shopping trip ‘up West’ had been a success, although Ellie suspected her mother had enjoyed it more than she had.
Looking in the mirror, Ellie hardly recognized herself. Her hair was shorter now, expertly cut to frame her heart-shaped face, with soft chestnut waves. Dressed up in the long gowns with a little make-up and costume jewellery, no one would question that she was old enough to be working in a sophisticated nightclub. But she still felt more comfortable in her old tartan skirt and maroon school jumper.
Ellie sat on the edge of the bed and sighed. The chores were all done and Dad had gone out. She could get her art things out and do some drawing or painting. But the thought only made her sad. She had put all her sketch pads, paints and pencils in a box on top of the wardrobe, together with the portfolio she’d been compiling for the college scholarship. What was the point of bothering? Maybe Dad and Auntie Vi were right – it was just a childish hobby. Deep down, she wasn’t really convinced – but it helped to tell herself so.
She stood up abruptly. She’d go down to the market and talk to Sid. They didn’t need any vegetables – she’d already done the shopping that morning. But she needed to see a cheerful face – and if anyone could cheer her up, Sid could.
As always, the comforting familiarity of the market lifted Ellie’s mood as soon as she turned the corner. The raucous shouts of the stallholders, together with the salty whiff from Ernie’s whelk stall and the warm blast of air laden with a rich meaty aroma as she passed Al’s pie shop, always spelt home to Ellie.
As she threaded her way through the crowds towards Sid’s stall, waving and calling a greeting to the other market traders, it dawned on her how much she would miss these familiar faces if ever she left this part of London. And with the thought came the realization that, if she’d won the scholarship and gone away to art college, she would have been forced to leave this all behind. She’d been so fixed on her ambitions that she hadn’t really thought what it would mean. There was no way she could pursue a career in art here in her native East End. Of course, the job in Tommy Green’s new club was up West, but at least she’d be coming home each day and her free time would be spent among friends and family. Maybe it was all for the best after all.
Her mood changed when she got home and Mum started talking about Harry again. ‘It’ll be nice to see him again, won’t it, love?’ she said.
Ellie nodded, unable to speak. In her dreams she’d almost convinced herself that Harry’s marriage had been a mistake and that when he returned to England he would leave Gerda behind. But of course, he couldn’t do that. Gerda was having a baby and Harry wouldn’t desert his own child. She forced a smile. No one must ever guess how she felt. Her love for Harry was a secret she would bury deep within herself. Despite her youth, she knew that she would never love anyone else like this. Mary glanced at the letter tucked behind the clock and patted Ellie’s shoulder. There had been a time when she had been quite worried about her daughter’s attachment to her foster brother, but she thought she’d got over it. Not that there was really anything wrong with it – they weren’t related, after all. But she’d been inclined to agree with Aunt Vi that such obsessive devotion wasn’t healthy. Still, young girls did develop crushes on the most unlikely people.
Maybe now that Harry was married and his wife expecting, she would start thinking of him as a brother again, and enjoy the thought of being an auntie to his baby. And perhaps she’d start going out with friends of her own age and make the most of being young and carefree.
With a sigh, Mary realized that that probably wouldn’t happen either, now that Ellie was starting work for Tommy Green. How she wished she’d been assertive enough to stand up to Bert when he suggested it. She told herself that Ellie was sensible enough not to get into any trouble, but she couldn’t help worrying that she’d come under the influence of the wrong sort of people. And if her younger daughter ended up the same way as Sheila she would never forgive herself.
Harry was looking forward to returning to England but he was beginning to wish he hadn’t been so hasty in agreeing to sign on as a regular. It had seemed the right thing at the time. He’d get a marriage allowance and married quarters and be able to provide for Gerda.
Now it had all gone wrong and he didn’t know whether to be relieved or angry. As usual he had arranged to meet Gerda at the beer cellar where they’d originally met. He’d been kept late at the barracks and arrived to find her sitting on someone’s lap, laughing and pouring beer down his throat. As he pushed his way through the crowded bar he saw her take a swig from the stein.
She shouldn’t be drinking while she was pregnant. He grabbed her arm and she looked round at him, the laughter draining from her face. ‘Oh, Harry,
, I thought you weren’t coming.’ She pouted. She scrambled off the other soldier’s lap and put her arms round him. ‘I thought you had deserted me.’
‘I couldn’t help being late.’ He bit his lip to stop the angry outburst. He knew Gerda liked to have fun and there was no harm in a little flirtation. After all, it was him she loved – hadn’t she said so over and over?
She stroked his cheek and kissed him. ‘You’re not cross with your Gerda?’
He could smell the beer on her breath. ‘No, of course not. But you shouldn’t drink so much. Think about the baby.’
She threw back her head and laughed. ‘No baby. Was a mistake. Silly mistake, Harry.’
He felt a churning in his stomach. No baby. The wedding was set for the following week, the arrangements brought forward when his posting came through. Was it too late to back out?
She noticed his expression and frowned. ‘We still get married, no? You take me to England with you?’
He forced a smile. ‘Of course. I don’t go back on my word.’
But as the evening wore on, Gerda drank more and more and she began to flirt with his mates. Harry told himself it was the relief of discovering she wasn’t pregnant after all. But he couldn’t help wondering whether she was really ready for married life on an army base.
When he returned from getting more drinks she was once more sitting on someone else’s lap and he felt another surge of anger. He slammed down the beer steins and pushed his way towards the door. As he turned back at the foot of the stairs leading to the street he saw that she hadn’t even noticed he was gone.
Back at the barracks he threw himself down on his bed, cursing himself for a fool. He’d known right from the start that getting involved with Gerda was a mistake. But he wasn’t one to shirk his responsibilities and he’d thought he was doing the right thing. She hadn’t been too bothered about him leaving so abruptly, but would she feel differently when she sobered up? He hardly dared to think he’d be let off the hook so easily. He sighed. How naïve he’d been, thinking she loved him. Had the supposed pregnancy been just a way to trap him?
As the men who shared his billet returned from their evening out he pretended to be asleep. Some of them had been in the beer cellar and seen Gerda’s behaviour. He couldn’t put up with their snide remarks.
Thank goodness he’d be away from here soon. He smiled at the thought of a few days’ leave before going to his new posting in Kent. Now he could look forward to seeing Ellie with a clear conscience. Would she be as pleased to see him? Or would her head be so full of art college that she hadn’t got time for him?
Harry swung his kitbag on to his shoulder and strode down the platform at Liverpool Street station. As he stood on the escalator, breathing in the hot, stale smell of the Underground, he could hardly believe he was back in London. Almost a year had gone by since his embarkation leave but so much had happened. A poster showing the National Gallery and Trafalgar Square reminded him of outings with Ellie and he smiled. When had he felt the first stirrings of love – a different kind of love from the brotherly feelings he’d always had? It had come upon him slowly and it was only when he was leaving that he realized how strong that love was.
Why had he tried to deny it, he asked himself now? He’d been worried that Mary would see it as a betrayal of her trust. But he could have waited until Ellie was older. It should have been easier being away from her. Not for the first time he cursed his stupidity in getting involved with Gerda – and he had been stupid, he realized that. Still he was free of her now. He hadn’t even seen her since that night in the beer cellar and one of his mates had told him she’d been seen with one of the officers. Good luck to him, Harry thought.
When he came to his stop he got off and walked up the steep stairs into the comparatively fresh air. He ran towards a bus stop and swung himself aboard a red double-decker. As the bus swayed round a corner and into Roman Road he felt a surge of nostalgia for his old home. It would be good to see Sid and his market friends. But he knew he was just putting off the moment when he’d have to face his family and tell them what a fool he’d been.
In the market it was as if he’d never been away and he was flushed and laughing by the time he’d run the gauntlet of the stallholders and their raucous comments. He stopped for a jaw with Sid, catching up on the gossip, then hefted his kitbag on to his shoulder again.
‘Gotta be off. I can’t wait to get home. I haven’t told them I’m coming today – wasn’t sure if I could get on the boat.’
At the corner of the street he stopped outside the flat, taking a few deep breaths to calm himself. Would Ellie be there? Perhaps he should go straight down to Kent, write and tell her his marriage was off. Give it a bit of time before he told her how he felt.