|Voices from the Past: The Baby;Past Deeds Are Always Paid For—Always By Elizabeth Uywin|
Father Craig, a tall thin priest with a voluminous cassock, approached him with his hand out-stretched.
â€œHello, Percy.â€ The tall priest beamed. â€œI would like you to meet someone. May I introduce you to John Valentine.â€
Percy looked towards the stranger and held his hand out in greeting.
â€œHeâ€™s just arrived here on leave from the army, you know, and I was wondering whether you would be kind enough to show him around.â€
The priest stepped back and looked at the poor bewildered stranger with tender pride, as if sizing up a new convert. Percy, on the other hand, wasnâ€™t so sure. Nevertheless, he was a Christian man and this morning he just happened to be in a good mood, so he decided to give the stranger a chance.
The two men looked at each other apprehensively.
â€œWell, Iâ€™ll leave you to it then.â€ Pleased that his role as host was finally over, the priest began to walk away. â€œOhâ€¦ I almost forgot.â€ Father Craig turned sharply, causing the cassock to swirl around his long legs. â€œMay I come to tea next Sunday afternoon, Percy? Your dear wife wouldnâ€™t mind, would she?â€
Percy smiled. â€œOf course not, Father, you know youâ€™re always welcome.â€
The small square table around which Percy and his companions usually sat was more crowded than usual, the game of dominoes forgotten as they discussed the prospect of a General Strike in heated conversation. It was Sunday 2nd May, 1926, the day after Sir Stanley Baldwin delegated a general council of the TUC to try to avoid the strike, and the day before it was called.
From the back, a man called out, â€œWeâ€™re all going to starve!â€ He was a rotund, middle-aged man with a thick brown moustache, his peak cap tilted on one side, with a pint of frothy beer resting in his hand.
â€œDonâ€™t be daft, man. They canâ€™t do that to us!â€ The voice was loud but the caller anonymous. â€œThereâ€™d be too much of an outcry.â€
There was uproar in the hall as they all shouted their agreement, mainly through fear that perhaps, just perhaps, the first speaker was right. John Valentine briefly smiled before leaning back in his armless wooden chair.
â€œThey say that the army will keep the docks open if you go on strike.â€ The stranger shrugged his shoulders and looked around at the dockersâ€™ grim faces. â€œWell, I look at it this way. If they donâ€™t have to pay your wages and the army keeps the docks open, you wonâ€™t make much of an impact by striking, will you?â€ He gave a short laugh. â€œThe strike could go on for a long time, donâ€™t you think, and where would that leave you and your families? Youâ€™ll be starved back to work, just like that gentleman over there said.â€ The silence, which engulfed the hall, had become even more deafening than the uproar a moment ago. On seeing the danger, Percy stepped quickly forward.
â€œNo, lads, everyone will be picketing the docks. No one will be allowed in or out, and eventually the whole country will come to a standstill. Donâ€™t forget, itâ€™s not only us, thereâ€™s the gas workers, transport and even the Post Office. No, I canâ€™t see it lasting for long.â€
Once more, there were cries of agreement, while John Valentine wisely remained silent.
â€œDadâ€¦ Dad.â€ Elsie was standing by her fatherâ€™s side, tugging at his coat. â€œMum says dinnerâ€™s nearly ready, and youâ€™re to come home now.â€
Percy looked down on his daughterâ€™s upturned face. Giving her a brief smile, he noticed her untidy hair and socks that were always rolled carelessly down around her ankles, revealing scraped and dirty legs. It looked as if she had been through a war; but then perhaps she had. Getting through this crowd was no easy feat.
â€œIn a minute, lass, Iâ€™ll be with you soon.â€ He paused before pushing his hand deep into his worn pocket. â€œHere, take this and get yourself some lemonade.â€
Elsie looked down in surprise at the worn brown penny and smiled a toothless happy smile before running off, allowing her father to return to the throng of worried men. Father Craig had just joined them.
â€œIâ€™ve heard, as I suppose you all have,â€ the priest spoke with a graceful air, â€œthat if a strike is called, and I do say if, they are to build a food depot in Hyde Park run, of course, by the army.â€
He glanced down on John Valentine and smiled reverently. Dan Turner, a middle-aged man who was well liked by all, suddenly rose to his feet.
â€œDo you know how many days Iâ€™ve worked this week, Father? Three, three, I tell you. Now thatâ€™s little more than three bob to keep a wife and six children on, and most of you are the same, if not worse.â€ He looked around the throng of men and pointed. â€œYou, Albert, you had the bailiffs in last week and they took most of your home away. Why? Iâ€™ll tell you why, because youâ€™re one month behind in the rent, one lousy month.â€
Albert nodded in sad agreement, his head bowed low as Frank Smith, who was standing behind him, reassuringly patted his shoulder. Dan Turner continued, his face becoming increasingly scarlet, his voice rising still higher with every emotional word.
â€œYou all know me eldest; every morning she lines up at the workhouse for a jug of milk and a loaf of stale bread. Now I ask you, what are you all afraid of? Weâ€™re already starving; they canâ€™t starve us anymore. If thereâ€™s going to be a food depot in Hyde Park, thatâ€™s all well and good. Iâ€™ll be there, first in the queue, lining up for the first square meal Iâ€™ve had in weeks.â€
The thunderous applause became deafening as Dan Turner sat down and took a much-needed gulp of beer. No one seemed to have noticed that Father Craig had slipped quietly away.
â€œDadâ€¦ Dad!â€ Marjorie desperately tugged at Percyâ€™s coat. â€œMum says dinnerâ€™s ready and youâ€™re to come home now.â€ Her voice sounded urgent, as if she had her motherâ€™s orders still ringing loudly in her ears. Percy looked down at his second daughter and smiled.
â€œAll right, love, I wonâ€™t be long now. Here, take this and get yourself some lemonade.â€
He again put his large hand deep into his trouser pocket and pulled out another penny coin. Marjorie looked down at the worn penny resting in the palm of her hand, her face full of delight as she looked up at her father and smiled. Then the smile vanished as she thought of her motherâ€™s scolding.
â€œDonâ€™t worry, lass, Iâ€™ll be coming home soon.â€ He gently patted her head. â€œNow run along and join your sister, I think sheâ€™s sitting by the door.â€
Once more Marjorie had to literally fight her way through the crowd of men, her heart thumping at the very thought of owning so much money all at once. Slowly, she made her way towards the little makeshift bar, her hand tightly gripping the one-penny coin as she approached the large, pot-bellied, middle-aged bartender, with his thick handle-bar moustache, which was waxed at the ends, pointing skywards.
â€œYes?â€ He spoke in a rough voice, causing Marjorie to jump. â€œWhat do you want?â€
â€œPlease, sir,â€ she whispered, â€œmay I have a glass of lemonade?â€ Staring up at him, with eyes full of fear, she clutched the precious coin to her chest.
â€œThatâ€™ll be half a penny.â€
Slowly, she held out her hand, allowing him to snatch her precious penny from within her grasp. Biting hard upon the coin with his yellowing teeth, he thrust her half-filled glass of lemonade towards her.
â€œWell, go on thenâ€¦ take it,â€ he shouted while flinging her change down onto the counter, causing her to gasp in fright, as he thrusted his head towards her, revealing bulbous bloodshot eyes. â€œI ainâ€™t going to drink it for you.â€
Grabbing her glass and change, she ran out of the hall with the echoes of the bartenderâ€™s laughter ringing in her ears.
The two sisters sat closely together on the top stone step, exchanging their stories of their harrowing encounters with the terrible bartender, while sipping tentatively at their precious lemonade, unaware of the importance of the conversation that they had just overheard.
The gathering of men around the square table in the Mission Hall had grown in number, and the noise had become deafening. Slowly, Percy rose to his feet, and looking around at the familiar sea of faces, he called for order.
â€œLook.â€ Percyâ€™s voice sounded strained and tired. â€œIâ€™m not going to talk to you about politics, I donâ€™t know enough about that side of things and anyway, politicians always twist the facts to suit themselves,â€ he paused, taking a deep breath. â€œBut I will tell you this, as most of you know, I work on the docks and what concerns me most is my job and being able to feed my family.â€ Everyone was quiet, while waiting for him to continue. â€œNow the way I look at it, the TUC says that we should go on strike in sympathy with the miners, because what happens to them today will happen to us tomorrow, and I reckon theyâ€™re right.â€
The men cheered while Percyâ€™s voice rose with sudden emotion.
â€œThey want more coal produced, but they refuse to improve the safety standards for the poor buggers who have to work down there. Theyâ€™ve even docked half of their wages to bring them in line, and what happens when the men refused to accept the ownerâ€™s terms?â€ He paused while looking around at the men who stood in stony silence. â€œIâ€™ll tell you what happens, they put lock-out notices on the mine gates so the men couldnâ€™t work, thatâ€™s what happens, and they were left to starve. Theyâ€™re starving now, this very minute as we talk and what do we do while the owners are trying to break them through starvation, to make them accept the filthy conditions that they work under for a pittance? Iâ€™ll tell you what we do, nothing, thatâ€™s what, nothing!â€ He thumped his fist down on the table with such force that it almost toppled over, while the hall erupted into thunderous applause.
â€œLet me tell you this, we canâ€™t allow it to go on any longer, and we have to stand up and be counted with them, shoulder to shoulder, as their fight today will be our fight tomorrow!â€ He shouted to make himself heard above the noise. â€œWe canâ€™t allow any working man, no matter who, or what he is, to be blackmailed into accepting slave labour conditions, and if that means weâ€™ve got to strike to help themâ€¦
â€”then strike we will!â€
The uproar in the tiny hall was once more deafening, as men shouted, whistled and clapped their approval. Slowly, Percy regained his seat; his head bowed with the weight of all the terrible trouble that he knew was to come. Meanwhile, Marjorie and Elsie looked behind them to see what all the noise was about as they searched the crowd for their father, yet to no avail. All they could see were the backs of strangers, hiding their father from view. They shrugged their tiny shoulders before deciding that their precious lemonade was far more interesting than any old strike.
Father Craig rang the brass hand bell for time, yet nobody heard him. He shouted as hard as he could; yet nobody took any notice of him. Therefore, with cassock flowing, he walked over towards the stubborn crowd of men and commandeering a chair, shouted as loudly as he possibly could, while ringing the bell high in the air with such vigour that he almost toppled over. â€œTime gentlemenâ€”please!â€ he continued to shout. With only a steadying hand saving him from imminent disaster, he got down and started to move the men forcibly towards the door, all the while ringing the bell with unbridled enthusiasm.
â€œHold on a minute, parson,â€ a short thin man with piercing blue eyes shouted with mock annoyance. â€œAnyone would think the devilâ€™s after yu, the way youâ€™re ringing that bloody thing in me ear.â€
Father Craig felt his embarrassment rising while everyone laughed at his visible discomfort. Giving the man a wide berth, he continued to ring his bell while calling for time with just a little less vigour.
As the men started to move slowly away, John Valentine wiped his mouth free from beer froth with the back of his hand. Looking up at Percy, who was standing to leave, he slowly smiled.
â€œDo you know where I could get a dinner around here?â€
â€œNo, mate, I donâ€™t think I do, not at this time on a Sunday anyway. Havenâ€™t you got any family that you could go to?â€
John Valentineâ€™s expression saddened. â€œNo, I havenâ€™t got any family.â€
Percy looked at the stranger while taking a deep breath; well, it was the Sabbath after all. â€œTell you what mate, you can come home with me, if you like. My wife wonâ€™t mind stretching to another dinner, besides, you can help me calm her down. Iâ€™m bound to get it in the neck for being so late.â€
Jackie tried to control the surging rage that welled up within her as she sat down to eat her meal.
â€œIf he wants his dinner cold, then thatâ€™s up to him, Iâ€™m not going to wait any longer,â€ she muttered while sitting down with a plop onto the wooded chair. Suddenly, the front door burst open with a crash, causing Jackie to look up startled, ready for the onslaught that was to ensueâ€¦ yet no one entered. Sitting silently, she glared at the open doorway, yet stillâ€¦ no one entered. Suddenly, and without warning, Percyâ€™s cloth cap flew through the air, hitting the welsh dresser with a thud. â€œHello, darling, Iâ€™m sorry Iâ€™m so late, but we had an important meeting.â€
Jackie, with calm features, sat motionless, waiting for her prey to come just a little nearer. With her eyes never leaving her errant husband, she slowly moved her hands towards her plate. Watching him tentatively entering the room, while being closely followed by a complete stranger, she smiled.
Picking his cap up from the kitchen floor, Percy, with his head bowed in shame, stood nervously before her. Suddenly, Jackie pounced, causing her chair to tip backwards, which gave Percy his cue. Ducking, he watched the white china plate sail past his head and hit the startled John Valentine squarely in the chest. The startled stranger took his army cap off and bowed.
â€œHow do you do, madam? My name is John Valentine; your husband has kindly invited me to dinner.â€ His voice betrayed little of the shock which he was feeling. â€œAnd if I may say so,â€ he said and then paused while licking his lips, â€œit tastes rather nice.â€
As the evening wore on, the small sitting room became warm and cosy. Jackie and Percy sat opposite each other in their worn armchairs, with Jackie crocheting by the glow of the gas lamp and Percy reading an old newspaper which he had read and re-read a hundred times before. Marjorie sat at the small, second-hand piano that Rose had given them, while playing a slow rhythmic tune.
â€œPlay something for your mother, Marjorie.â€ Percy looked at his daughter from over the top of his newspaper.
â€œWhat do you want me to play, Dad?â€
â€œHow about â€˜The Lordâ€™s My Shepherdâ€™?â€
Jackie smiled as Marjorie began to play. Eric and Roy looked at each other from across the table and started to giggle while their mother leaned back in her chair, closed her eyes, and listened to her favourite hymn. Elsie leaned towards Roy, while whispering in his ear through her cupped hands.
â€œMum has never been the same since Auntie Roseâ€™s gave us her old piano.â€
Roy smiled. â€œI know,â€ he whispered in return. â€œI saw her polishing it this morning.â€ He paused before wriggling closer towards her. â€œShe was stroking the keys.â€
The three children put their heads down and quietly giggled. â€œItâ€™s a shame she canâ€™t play it though,â€ laughed Eric.
â€œOi, you threeâ€¦ belt up and let your mother listen.â€
On their fatherâ€™s command, they silently returned their concentration back to their books. The evening was the same as any other evening, except this evening, their peace was to be rudely interrupted by a loud knocking on the front door.
Everyone looked up in surprise. Then there was another knock, louder than the first.
â€œWho can that be at this time of night?â€ Jackie exclaimed while watching Percy slowly walking towards the door. As he opened it, a group of dirty children looked eagerly up at him through the darkening light. The smallest of the group, Charlie Edgley, stood at the fore. With lightning speed, he snatched the cloth cap from his small head, before stepping forward.
â€œHello, Mr Cole,â€ he confidently stated, â€œweâ€™ve come to the party!â€
The summer of 1926 was hot and airless, which caused Jackie to open her front door wide. Breathing the warm breeze that drifted towards her, she wiped her moist features with the corner of her voluminous apron. Every window in the house was open, and very curtain pulled back. Wiping a stray strand of hair back from her forehead, she took one last gulp of warm air.
â€œGod, itâ€™s hot.â€
Returning to the table where she was kneading the dayâ€™s bread, she began to put the dough into the oblong tin with an expert flick of her wrist. The mouth-watering smell which drifted out of the house told her that the first loaf was already baked. Quickly lifting the ovenâ€™s heavy latch, she took out the freshly baked loaf, and at the same time, replaced it with another. Arching her back as she rose, she walked slowly towards the stone sink. Washing her hands under the cold running water, she groaned with relief as the waterâ€™s cold flow ran up and down her arms. Cupping her hands, she then splashed her face with such vigour that she didnâ€™t hear the voice behind her.
Turning quickly, she looked at the tall, thin police officer standing in the open doorway, with a shocked expression.
â€œIâ€™m sorry, madam.â€ He entered the house as he spoke. â€œAre you Mrs Cole?â€
â€œYesâ€¦ Iâ€™m Mrs Cole.â€
â€œYour husbandâ€™s, is a Mr Percy Cole?â€
â€œYes, thatâ€™s rightâ€¦ Whatâ€™s happened?â€
â€˜â€˜Iâ€™m very sorry to inform you, madamâ€¦ Your husband has met with an accident.â€
Jackie, while still holding the towel to her features, stared at him from across the room, too stunned to move.
â€œWhatâ€™s happened? Where is he?â€
â€œHeâ€™s at Dulwich Hospital, madam, he was running to catch a bus and apparentlyâ€¦ as he jumpedâ€¦ his foot must have slipped.â€ The officer looked down at his hands before continuing in an inaudible whisper. â€œHe was dragged over Tower Bridge. Vehicles are not allowed to stop once theyâ€™re on the bridge you see, madam.â€ Glancing up, he now looked at her white features. â€œThe conductor did all that he could, madam. He probably saved his life.â€
â€œTake me to him,â€ was all she uttered.
The journey seemed long and dusty as they weaved their way in between horses and carts with their heavy loads. Everyone seemed to be in such a hurry. Her mind drifted back to the beginning of the day when she last saw Percy. As usual, she was busy getting the children ready for school. Mary was crying, and Elsie couldnâ€™t find her all-important English books. Everyone needed her at the same time. She could see him now, standing by the kitchen table. He had picked up his lunch box and was smiling.
â€œHave you got a kiss for me then, girl?â€
She turned and gave him a quick peck on the cheek, telling him to hurry or heâ€™d be late for the picket line. It had seemed unimportant at the time. If only she had stopped and said goodbye to him properly, if only she hadnâ€™t been in such a hurry, if onlyâ€¦ if onlyâ€¦ if only.
â€œHere you are, Mrs Cole; your husbandâ€™s bed is at the far end of the ward.â€ The young nurse paused. â€œOh, I nearly forgot. Sister would like to see you before you leave. Her office is just there.â€ She pointed towards a smartly painted dark-green door before turning down the long, never-ending labyrinth.
Jackie tentatively entered the long ward, desperately trying to avoid making a sound upon the highly polished floor. She glanced to either side of her, looking at each bedâ€™s occupant as she progressed down the wards length. All was quiet, all was neat, and all was scrupulously clean. Suddenly, her tentative progress faltered.
â€œPercy,â€ she whispered while noticing the heavily bandaged legs protruding from under the blue counterpane. â€œPercy.â€
Fumbling behind her for the small chair that was situated by the side of the bed, she pulled it towards her, before sitting as close as she could to the unyielding bed. Her gaze never left his features as she held his still hand within hers. She sat, unmoving, unblinking, and unaware of time, or any other being, untilâ€¦
Feeling a hand touching her shoulder, she turned to see an official-looking woman in a starched white cap and a starched white apron, who introduced herself as Sister Anderson.
â€œIâ€™m sorry, but youâ€™ll have to leave now. Do you think you could just pop into my office for a moment? Iâ€™d like a quiet word with you if I may.â€
Knocking on the door of Sister Andersonâ€™s office, Jackie waited patiently before being beckoned entry.
â€œEnter.â€ The voice that came from within was stern and authoritative, causing Jackie to open the door with trepidation. â€œOh, Mrs Cole, do please come in and take a seat.â€
Sister Anderson was a plump, middle-aged woman with kind features. She had always put her profession before anything else in her life and had therefore never married, nor did she wish to do so. Her â€˜childrenâ€™ were her patients that she bullied, coerced and nagged into getting better. Woe betides anyone who dared to disobey her. She ran her ward as a colonel ran his army; her nurses were her front line against such enemies as germs, bugs and bacteria. Every morning she gave her troops their orders and they would stand to attention in front of her desk. With uniforms and hands inspected for cleanliness, they would march out of her office in single file to engage in their daily battle. She now looked at the young woman who sat before her, silently waiting, and silently hoping for good news. She took a deep breath. She never did quite know how to tell a woman with children that there was a strong possibility, that her main breadwinner, her only breadwinner in fact, faced the prospect of never being able to work again. She took another deep breath before continuing.
â€œWould you care for some tea, Mrs Cole?â€ Without waiting for a reply, she rang the hand bell that rested by the side of her writing pad.
Jackie sat on the hard, armless chair while her hands fidgeted nervously on her lap, wondering why the Sister had wanted to speak to her. There was a light knock on the door before it slowly opened, and a young student nurse entered.
â€œYou may bring us two cups of strong tea, nurse.â€ She looked across the table at Jackie. â€œDo you take sugar?â€
â€œYes, please, two.â€
Jackie looked at the Sister and then at the young nurse who was standing to attention behind her. Sister Anderson nodded.
â€œYou had better bring a tray, nurse, and then weâ€™ll be able to help ourselves.â€
â€œYes, Sister.â€ The young nurse seemed almost to curtsey before walking out of the office.
The two women were left alone in the silent, austere room, with only the ticking of the wooden wall clock to keep them company.
â€œYou know what happened to your husband, Mrs Cole?â€ Her voice sounded hard and firm; she wished it never, yet she couldnâ€™t break a habit of a lifetime. She tried to continue with a little more sensitivity none-the-less. â€œI meanâ€”the policeâ€”they did inform you of the situation?â€
â€œOh yes, the officer told me what had happened. He was very kind.â€
The Sisterâ€™s gaze fell down onto her clenched hands; this was going to be more difficult than she had first realised.
â€œWell, as you then know,â€ she continued before looking up. â€œHe was dragged over Tower Bridge, and has hit his stomach rather severely on the busâ€™s footplate. But I wonâ€™t go into all that for the moment, for as you said, you already know the details.â€
Peering towards Jackie, she made a note in a small writing pad before continuing.
â€œWell, Mrs Cole, what concerns us more than anything else is his legs. You see, they took most of the impact when he fell. Luckily, we managed to operate. However, I am afraid, Mrs Cole, that your husband will always need the aid of a walking stick, and of course any type of heavy work is totally out of the question. The police have told us that he works at St Katherineâ€™s docks, is this true?â€
â€œYes, if heâ€™s lucky to be picked,â€ Jackie finally replied while nervously twisting her gold wedding ring around her slim finger. â€œI didnâ€™t realise that it was so serious.â€ She felt numb, speaking the words that she could not hear herself speak.
â€œIâ€™m afraid it is, Mrs Cole, very serious. Heâ€™ll be in plaster for weeks, if not months.â€
A sharp knock on the door heralded the return of the young nurse.
Sister Anderson seemed annoyed at the interruption. The door opened and the tall young nurse entered, carrying a small, square tray of tea. She walked towards the desk and placed the tray with its contents in front of the Sister.
â€œWill that be all, Sister?â€ â€œYes, thank you, nurse, you may return to your duties.â€
The nurse left, as she had entered, closing the door behind her.
â€œWell, Iâ€™m afraid he wonâ€™t be able to go back to that type of work again, Mrs Cole. Itâ€™s totally out of the question.â€
She passed Jackie her cup of steaming hot tea over the top of the desk.
â€œBut he canâ€™t do anything else. Heâ€™s worked on the docks all of our married life.â€ Jackieâ€™s hand shook as she reached forward to take the offered cup, almost spilling its contents. â€œHow am I going to feed us all? We havenâ€™t got any money.â€
â€œIâ€™m afraid, Mrs Cole, that is not my concern. My concern is my patient, and Iâ€™m telling you now that on no account can your husband go back to that sort of work. It is unthinkable.â€ Leaning, forward, she held Jackieâ€™s gaze. â€œDo you understand my meaning, Mrs Cole? He may never walk again.â€
Jackie lowered her head. â€œYes, yes, I understand.â€ Her voice was barely audible. â€œI understand,â€ she whispered.
â€œGood.â€ Sister Anderson leaned back in her chair, feeling relieved. â€œGood, then I have made myself perfectly clear.â€ Looking down at her cup, while thoughtfully tracing its handle with her forefinger, she took a deep breath. â€œDo you mind if I ask you a personal question, Mrs Cole?â€
â€œNo, Sisterâ€¦ of course not.â€
â€œWhat was your husband doing at work this morning? I thought the docks were closed with this dreadful strike going on.â€
She gazed intently across her desk towards Jackie, who nervously sipped her tea. Jackie returned her gaze. The professional woman, who knew nothing of her daily battle with life, was judging her. Swallowing hard, Jackie, too, took a deep breath before replying.
â€œHe went on the picket line, Sister; you see, the army is keeping the docks open.â€
Looking down at the half empty bone china cup and saucer, which nestled within her rough hands, she battled to control her rising emotions.
Sister Anderson sighed. â€œI see,â€ she said. Pausing, the professional woman now leant towards her emotional visitor. â€œMay I also ask you, Mrs Cole, how you intend to pay the hospital bills, if you are as poor as you say you are?â€
â€œI donâ€™t know, Sister.â€ A heavy silence fell between the two women. â€œI will have to think of a way though, wonâ€™t I?â€
â€œYes, indeed, Mrs Cole, Iâ€™m afraid you will. Still, God will provide, Iâ€™m sure.â€ Sister Anderson suddenly rose, bringing the interview to an abrupt end. â€œI will keep you informed of your husbandâ€™s progress, Mrs Cole, and if, in the meantime, you have any queries, please do not hesitate to contact me.â€
â€œYes, yes, of course, Sister.â€ Jackie rose before walking towards the open doorway. â€œThank you.â€
Silently, she walked out of the austere office, and as the door quietly closed behind her, she stood aloneâ€¦ and cried.
Elizabeth Moore thought of her daughter before looking at the mantelpiece where the little wooden clock ticked away the hours.
â€œWhen will mum be coming home?â€ Roy enquired while looking up from the kitchen sink where he had his arms up to his elbows in hot, soapy washing-up water.
â€œI donâ€™t know, dear. I expect sheâ€™ll be home soon.â€
â€œI wish I knew how Dad is.â€
Marjorie, who was sitting at the head of the table, with Mary on her lap, looked at her grandmother with a worried expression.
â€œOh, heâ€™ll be fine, just fine; you wait and see, dear.â€ Elizabeth Moore was a short, slim woman who looked all of her forty years. Her greying hair, which had been cut into a short bob, looked uncharacteristically untidy as her goldmetal rimmed spectacles slipped to the end of her nose. She now stood in front of the fireplace, wiping her hands on her large white apron that was draped around her slim waist, sniffing for no particular reason. A lifetime habit, which, even as adults, annoyed her grandchildren.
â€œThere, thatâ€™s that job jobbed,â€ she said, while her small dark eyes scanned the roomâ€™s width for any misdemeanour. â€œEverything nice and tidy for when your poor mother comes home.â€
â€œCan I put the radio on, Nan?â€ Eric sat down in his fatherâ€™s armchair, while picking up the precious headset.
â€œSonny!â€ Her stern voice filled the room, â€œI havenâ€™t said you can yet.â€
â€œOh, go on, Nan, I wonâ€™t harm it.â€
Eric glanced towards her from across the room, and his impish features, which he knew his grandmother couldnâ€™t resist, broke into a mischievous smile.
â€œWell, go on then, but be careful, mind.â€ She frowned while poking her short stubby finger at him in warning. â€œIt took your father ages to make that set, and heâ€™ll have your guts for garters if you muck it up.â€
Eric, while putting the headset on, twiddled with the thin wire until he reached the required station. Slowly closing his eyes, he leant back before drumming his fingers to the tuneâ€™s rhythm. Just then, a faint noise was heard at the front door.
Everyone stopped; everyone looked in its direction
â€œMum!â€ Jackie exclaimed while opening the door. â€œWhat are you doing here? I thought Rosie was taking care of the children.â€
The question went unanswered as all the children gathered around her, asking different questions about their father.
â€œCome on now, let your poor mother get in. Marjorie, put Mary to bed. Itâ€™s getting late.â€
â€œIâ€™ll take her, Nan.â€ Roy ran forward, and taking Mary out of Marjorieâ€™s arms, he looked over his shoulder towards his mother. â€œShe goes down easier with me, doesnâ€™t she, Mum?â€
Jackie smiled in his direction. â€œI donâ€™t know, that boy.â€
She spoke quietly while slowly taking off her felt hat. â€œHe wonâ€™t let anyone near her.â€
â€œHeâ€™ll soon grow out of that, my girl.â€ Elizabeth sniffed. â€œYou wait and see if he doesnâ€™t. Now come on, sit down and tell me how Percy is.â€
Jackie put the hatpin back into her felt hat before sitting down in Marjorieâ€™s chair. On noticing Maryâ€™s drawing, she absentmindedly picked it up before placing it back down onto the table.
â€œMum,â€ she whispered, lowering her head into her hands. â€œWhat am I going to do?â€
â€œCome on, loveâ€”tell your old mumâ€”how is he.â€
Jackie raised her head before taking a deep breath. Looking at her mother, who was sitting opposite her, with all the children gathered around, their faces glowing in the orange gaslight, she quietly began to tell of the dayâ€™s story.
â€œThere,â€ she finally uttered. â€œThatâ€™s all we have to keep us out of the workhouse, and the rentâ€™s due.â€ (
Their eyes followed her hands as she carefully emptied her cloth purse out onto the table. â€œYour father may be owed some wages, yet I doubt it. That I shall have to find out tomorrow.â€
Looking at their anxious faces in turn, she began to speak slowly and with authority, like a general directing a strategy of war.
â€œNow, Iâ€™ve been thinking about this, and to my mind thereâ€™s only one way out. Eric, you will have to find work, any work, and from now on youâ€™re taking your fatherâ€™s place as breadwinner in this household.â€
â€œBut Mumâ€¦â€ He began to protest loudly yet was abruptly halted by Jackie raising her hand.
â€˜â€˜Iâ€™m sorry, Eric,â€ she interrupted. â€œItâ€™s no good complaining. I know me and your father wanted you to stay on at school, but this is survival, lad. The hospital bills have to be paid, and this house has to run. Youâ€™re the eldest, and thatâ€™s that. My mindâ€™s made up.â€
Elizabeth looked at her daughter and sniffed. â€œGood God, girl, itâ€™s about time he went out to work, a great strapping lad like him, and the same goes for that big lummox as well.â€ She nodded her head in Marjorieâ€™s direction. â€œSitting there, playing the piano all day. Itâ€™s not right.â€ She looked over the rim of her spectacles towards her daughter. â€œShe ought to go out at work, it wouldnâ€™t kill her.â€
â€œNo, Mum, sheâ€™s got a gift with her music, a precious gift, and Iâ€™m not going to sacrifice it.â€ Jackie, once more, raised her hand against her motherâ€™s protests. â€œI saw her teacher the other day, and sheâ€™s willing to give Marjorie a couple of free piano lessons a week.â€
Jackie looked at her daughter, who was in a state of complete shock. â€œThatâ€™s if she continues to improve, of course.â€
â€œYouâ€™re mad!â€ Elizabethâ€™s cheeks flushed with annoyance. â€œYou ought to put first things first, my girl, special gift my foot.â€ She sniffed very loudly. â€œIâ€™d like to know how a special giftâ€™s going to fill her bellyâ€”and yours, come to that.â€
â€œListen, Mum, Percy told me last week that Father Craig would be coming to tea tomorrow, now Iâ€™ve got a plan.â€
With her eyes narrowing with animal cunning, Jackie leant closely towards her mother.
â€œWhat you thinking about, girl, I know that look.â€
â€œWell, Mum, I reckon itâ€™s like thisâ€¦â€
The two women leaned closely together, their heads almost touching as Jackie whispered fervently into her motherâ€™s ear.
â€œDo you think itâ€™ll work, girl?â€
â€œI donâ€™t see why not, do you?â€
The four bewildered children looked perplexed until Eric finally shrugged his shoulders in final submission and rose to leave.
â€œI donâ€™t know about you lot, but Iâ€™m off to bed. Iâ€™ve had enough for one night.â€
It was mid-afternoon when Father Craig, licking his lips, stood on the doorstep of 4a Villa Street. Knocking loudly on the door, he wiggled with anticipation while seeing in his mindâ€™s eye the long wooden table almost groaning with food. The best china, with its little blue forget-me-nots circling their rims, would be laid out to perfection, with a large salad bowl given pride of place in the middle of the table. Trifles and jellies in their little individual dishes, which were covered with thick yellow custard; sandwiches cut in neat little triangles with watercress peeping out from their edges; and above all, oh yes, above all, were Mrs Coleâ€™s cakes. Some were cut in half with jam oozing out from their sides, while others were covered with a thin layer of dark delicious chocolate. He licked his lips once more while he patiently waited for the door to open. Oh yes, he thought, Mrs Cole, is, was, and always will be, the best cook down the Walworth Road. The door opened to reveal Jackie, wearing her best dark dress, and the children standing behind her. The girls curtsied while the boys bowed their heads in respect.
â€œGood evening, Father!â€ they cried in unison as Father Craig smiled an official smile, in an official greeting.
â€œDo come in, Father, and make yourself comfortable.â€ Jackie stepped aside for him to pass.
As he entered the kitchen, he carefully unhooked the little chain that fastened the heavy cape from around his shoulders.
â€œThank you, Mrs Cole, youâ€™re most kind.â€
â€œNot at all, Father, not at all.â€
She smiled briefly as she took the cape from his slender hands, and placed it respectfully on the hook before ushering him towards his usual place at the head of the table.
The children waited for the priest to be seated before taking their places. Sitting down with their backs as straight as ramrods, and their hands resting neatly upon their laps, they gazed fixedly at the new arrival.
The vision of this afternoonâ€™s tea, which the priest had had just a few moments ago, was now just a distant memory as he looked down with astonishment upon the bare table. The white tablecloth was there, so was the best china, but in the place of the beautiful green salad bowl stood a large white plate of bread and dripping. There werenâ€™t any little jellies with custard, or delicate little sandwiches with watercress peeping out at him in welcome. Above all, oh no, above all, the jam cakes were nowhere to be seen. He desperately tried not to look flustered, but he was unable to conceal his feelings of disappointment.
â€œIâ€™m very sorry, Father, that we canâ€™t have our usual high tea today.â€ Jackie smiled sweetly down at him. â€œAs you know, my husband is not very well.â€
â€œHeâ€™s not the only one.â€
Elsie whispered to Marjorie as the two girls giggled before Jackie shot them a sideways glance that warned them to be careful.
â€œAnd you see, Father,â€ she continued, â€œbeing as he wonâ€™t be able to work for some time, money will be very short, but of course youâ€™re most welcome to share what little we do have.â€
â€œIndeed, Mrs Cole, Iâ€™m very sorry to hear thatâ€”very sorry indeed.â€
â€œSorry to hear what, Father?â€ Roy innocently enquired.
â€œWhy, sorry to hear about your poor father, of course.â€
â€œOf course, Father, what else would you mean?â€
The priest, realising for the first time that his mouth was wide open, closed it with a sharp snap of his large white teeth.
â€œYou see, Father,â€ Jackie paused, before pouring out a cup of weak tea. â€œIâ€™m afraid Eric will have to be the breadwinner from now on.â€ She drew a deep, sad sigh, while nodding in the direction of Eric who was wriggling selfconsciously on his chair. â€œWhich is a shame really. Never mind, thatâ€™s how it is.â€
Father Craigâ€™s mind was racing at the thought of never again experiencing Mrs Coleâ€™s delicious teas. The disappointment was overwhelming as she thrust the large plate, which was piled high with thick slices of bread and cold brown dripping, under his nose, forcing his stomach to heave at its strong odour.
â€œWould you like something to eat, Father?â€
â€œNo, thank you, Mrs Cole, I donâ€™t think Iâ€™m very hungry today. You see, Iâ€™ve had rather a large lunch.â€
He leaned away from the plate while smiling feebly up at her. Jackie now signalled to each of the children to take a slice. The priest watched them fill their hungry mouths. Finally, his gaze fell upon Elsie, who had the thick brown lard all around her mouth. Her tongue was darting in and out as she licked around her lips at the sticky brown dripping that oozed from the corners of her tiny mouth; all the while her dark beady eyes stared at him, daring him to take a slice for himself. It was all too much for the refined priest who quickly covered his mouth with his handkerchief and ran outside to the vacant lavatory.
When he returned, he had made up his mind that something had to be done and fast, to restore his beautiful teas back to their former glory. He sat down and held his squirming stomach while wiping his sweating forehead with his handkerchief. Then he smiled at Jackie, who was hovering over him with mock concern.
â€œAre you all right, Father? You do look most peaky; it must have been something that youâ€™ve eaten.â€
â€œOr something that he didnâ€™t eat.â€ Elsie giggled.
â€œYes, yes, thank you, Iâ€™m quite all right, Mrs Cole,â€ he continued while composing himself, â€œI can see that you are in great financial hardship now that your husband is unable to work. If there is anything that I can do, in my capacity as a priest you understand, I will be more than willing to assist you in any way that I can.â€
Leaning back in his chair, he closed his eyes while trying hard not to smell the beef drippings strong odour.
â€œWell, Father, as I was saying, Eric here will have to be the breadwinner from now on. He needs to find employment as soon as possible.â€ She slowly took another sip of tea while her eyes firmly held his sickly gaze. â€œAnd some laundry work that I could do at home, that would certainly help.â€ She smiled endearingly across the table at him. â€œI would be very grateful. After all, every little helps, donâ€™t you agree, Father?â€
He smiled at her across the table, slowly beginning to understand. â€œYes, Mrs Cole,â€ he said, â€œit does indeed.â€
Father Craig had always admired Jackie Coleâ€™s strong will, yet had never before realised that she possessed such cunning; a cunning to survive. He knew that she was blackmailing him with the only asset at her deposalâ€”his â€˜Sunday high teasâ€™. What a woman.
Two weeks had passed when Jackie, being surrounded by the weekâ€™s washing, was scrubbing one of Ericâ€™s old shirts on the well-worn scrubbing board. Wearily brushing a stray piece of hair away from her burning features, she cursed as a loud knock disturbed her thoughts.
â€œDamn, who the hell is that now?â€ Slowly walking towards the door, she wiped her hands and arms free from soapy bubbles with her apron. â€œOh, Father Craig.â€ She flicked away another wisp of hair. â€œI wasnâ€™t expecting you today, do, please, come in.â€
He entered what seemed to him to be a hot house with steam billowing everywhere.
â€œI wonâ€™t stay long, Mrs Cole, as I am rather busy. I just came to inform you that I have managed to find Eric a position at the Observer newspaper in Fleet Street. He will only be a messenger to start with, of course, but thereâ€™s plenty of opportunity for him to better himself if he desires to do so.â€
* * *