Read Flowers on the Mersey Online

Authors: June Francis

Flowers on the Mersey

Flowers on the Mersey

J
UNE
F
RANCIS

In acknowledgement of the special ties that exist between Liverpool, America, and that island across the Irish Sea.

 

 

 

If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had the opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.

 

Hebrews 11: 15-16

Esther Clark placed the letter from Ireland on the green chenille tablecloth and rested her chin on her hand. What to do? There must be something. She sat there for several minutes before rising to her feet, unable to stay still any longer, and went to the sitting-room door. ‘Hannah!’ She had to call several times.

‘What is it thou wants?’ The maid’s voice was disgruntled as she came into the sitting room. She swiped at a fly with her duster and smiled with satisfaction as it zigzagged like a drunken man on to the floor. She picked it up and deposited it on the coal fire before looking at her mistress. ‘If it’s the shopping thou’s after, then thee’ll just have to wait. I haven’t finished upstairs.’

‘I’ll do the shopping.’

‘You! Thee, I mean.’ Hannah looked startled. ‘Are
yer going on thy own then for a change? Thee hasn’t dun that for a while.’

‘Yes. I’m going on my own,’ said Esther, despite being all of a dither but determined that Hannah would not have the upper hand for once. The maid had entered her life one stormy night when she had come into the Quaker-run St Anne’s Citizen’s Institute, situated in one of the worst slum areas in Liverpool. Esther had been a voluntary helper and had fed the hungry young woman. Now, fifteen years on, Hannah was supposedly one of the Quaker faithful.

‘Thou’s up to summit.’ The maid scowled and folded her skinny arms across her chest. ‘What is it?’

Esther drew a deep breath. ‘I’m going to St Anne Street, and I want to go alone.’

‘Whatever for?’ Hannah’s tone was curious. ‘If thee’ll just hold thee horses, ‘I’ll cum with thee. Don’t want thee having one of thy queer dos.’

I’ll be all right,’ insisted Esther, reaching for the letter on the table. ‘I can always go to the Centre if I’m not. Tina will give me a cup of tea.’

‘Hmmph!’ Hannah’s sharp eyes glanced down at the letter and her thoughts shifted. ‘It says Dublin. Is it from that sister thee were speaking about?’

‘Yes. Sarah hasn’t been at all well.’ Esther picked up the letter and placed it in her pocket.

‘Not surprising,’ sniffed Hannah. ‘They should shoot the lot of them rebels. The way they snipe at
our soldiers … hanging’s too good for them.’

‘Just thou finish upstairs and don’t thee be concerning thyself with such things,’ ordered Esther, her plump cheeks turning pink as she hurried out of the room. There were times when the struggle to impart pacifist beliefs into Hannah proved too much, but having said that, the maid’s words had given her something to think about.

Esther put on her coat, found her handbag, took a couple of Dr Cassell tablets to calm her nerves and stood quietly for a few moments in the lobby, aware of Hannah’s overwhelmingly silent presence behind her. Then she opened the front door and went out.

Esther sat on the tram, her gloved hand nervously twisting the ticket between her fingers. It was twenty years since she had last seen her sister and in all that time her father had only mentioned Sarah’s name once. Esther had watched him withdraw into himself, shutting even her out. It made it all the more difficult to understand why he had kept the letters her sister had sent and which Esther had not known existed. Yet she could only be glad that he had not got rid of them. Otherwise she would never have been able to trace Sarah after he had died. As it was her letter had needed to be forwarded because her sister had moved with her husband and daughter to a different address in Dublin. Esther now had a nineteen-year-old niece, a member of this wild
post-war
generation. A young mind whom she might be
able to influence as she had once tried to influence Sarah, ten years her younger. She looked out of the window, remembering.

Her stop loomed up and Esther got off the tram and walked quickly in the direction of St Anne Street, which not only housed the Institute where she had met Hannah, but also the wholesale and general merchant store which her father had once owned. It was here that Sarah had met the handsome young Irishman, who had swept her off her feet.

How contented Esther’s life had been before he had come on the scene. Mama’s passing had been a blow, of course, as had the deaths of the three tiny boys, at each of whose births Papa had dared to hope that here was a future heir to his tiny kingdom. He had borne each terrible death stoically and resigned himself to the care of his older daughter. As for Esther, she had known it was her duty to tend her father and small sister.

They had lived in rooms over the shop, sharing them with the stock that Papa imported on ships from every corner of the British Empire. Brought on horsedrawn carts from the Liverpool docks, the boxes, tins, bottles and casks had always provided an exciting diversion from her bookkeeping. Life had been busy and fulfilling, so that sometimes there had been no time to give Sarah the discipline she needed. Her sister had got away with much that their mother would never have allowed. Esther’s only excuse was that Sarah was always so cheerful and bright about
the place that she and Papa found it difficult to scold her when she did do wrong. (There had been the episode with a bicycle and a boy.) She had been forgiven much, but not falling in love with Adam Rhoades, a member of the Church of Ireland. He had refused to accept the tenets of the Quaker faith and Sarah had been lost to them. Esther’s fingers crumpled the ticket. Adam had caused a lot of pain and she still had not forgiven him.

She reached the shop to notice that the partially black-painted windows still bore in gold lettering her father’s name and the year in which he had established his business – 1870, the year of her birth. Despite Hannah’s company in the house she had felt very alone since her father had died in the flu epidemic which had swept Europe last year, killing more people than the Great War had soldiers. It made it seem all the more terrible that across the Irish Sea the rebels and the Black and Tans were playing all kinds of dirty tricks on each other.

Esther thought of her sister’s letter and the unexpected tone of it. There was no note of brightness in it at all. It was obvious that her sister needed looking after but it was no good going herself. Her nerves would never stand the terrible sniping and explosions. She pursed her lips. There was only one person who was fit to go and that was Hannah, who claimed to be scared of nothing and who had nursed her mistress through flu. Hannah who could
wear you down once she was determined about something. It was very tiring, but it was that trait that had made her a survivor and so suitable for the task Esther had in mind. Hannah was the second eldest of six children, whose mother had taken to the bottle after her husband left. Hannah had reared the younger ones in a filthy court in the vicinity of Gerard Street. Those houses were one room above another with an earth closet beneath the bedroom window shared between several families. For coping with such horrors, Esther could not fail to admire her maid, despite the underlying aggression in her manner. Hannah waged war on dirt, strong drink and men. Esther did not doubt that her nerves would stand up to bullets and bombs. There would have to be some extra money in her wages, of course. She was as sharp as a knife where money was concerned because she was saving for her old age.

But Hannah was not the only one growing old. Esther would be fifty in August and wanted her family near her. She would send a note with Hannah suggesting that as soon as her sister was fit to travel, she and her daughter Rebekah should come to Liverpool on a visit. Surely Adam would see no wrong in that? He would want his wife and daughter in a place safe from violence – and hopefully it would be the first step in persuading them to stay in Liverpool for good.

Rebekah Rhoades walked soft-footedly along the lobby and opened the front door as Hannah came out of the dining room.

‘It’s fellas, isn’t it?’ demanded the maid, bustling towards her. ‘That’s what’s taking thee out?’

‘I’ve told you where I’m going.’ Rebekah’s voice was controlled, not revealing the annoyance she felt. ‘Not that it’s any of your business, Hannah.’

She closed the front door and hurried down the street, her russet and black skirts flapping against her calves. How dare Aunt Esther in Liverpool send that self righteous, prying old … old harpy? As if Rebekah had not been able to cope since her mother took ill with her nerves. It was boring being stuck in the house at times, but she had given up a job working in her father’s government office to do the housework and look after Mother. Now Hannah had
taken over and she was fed up with it. She glanced behind her, not putting it past the maid to follow her, but there was no sign of Hannah’s bony figure.

Rebekah relaxed slightly, enjoying the sun shining through the autumn-tinted leaves in St Stephen’s Green. She had arranged to meet Willie, one of the lads from the street, by Nelson’s monument in O’Connell Street, but first she had to pay a visit to an old lady, who was her excuse for escaping the house. Since Hannah had caught her passing the time of day with a boy by their front doorstep, she had watched her like a hawk. It maddened Rebekah, and it was that more than anything that had caused her to take up with Willie. It was nothing serious but she needed some young company. The worry over her mother and the fighting had got her down. Like most people in Dublin her nerves were stretched to the limit. She was convinced that those in authority had lost control of the lower ranks on both sides and anarchy had taken over.

She felt a familiar sense of apprehension as she went along the High Street, and tried to concentrate on thoughts of Willie. He was fair and good-looking; a would-be poet who considered himself another Yeats. He had a swaggering manner which sometimes amused, sometimes irritated, but she would not have to put up with it much longer. Besides, not every girl had verse written in praise of her eyelashes!

Going down towards the Liffy she passed a couple
of Black and Tan auxiliaries, so named because of the combination of khaki uniform with police cap and belt. A number of them were ex-soldiers from the Great War. They looked at her and she stared through them, determined not to show nervousness or irritation at their scrutiny. She was doing her good deed for the day by visiting the elderly grandmother of a young Irish soldier killed on the Somme.

Aware that they had stopped a little further up the street while one of them lit a cigarette, Rebekah hesitated in front of Old Mary’s door, which opened directly on to the pavement. The wide brim of her black hat with its rust ribbon blocked her vision slightly and with one hand she eased it back as she knocked.

The door opened quicker than was normal, but before she could take in that it was not Old Mary standing in the doorway, she received a push that felled her to the ground. Two shots rang out and she lifted her head in time to see one of the auxiliaries crumple in a heap while another pulled out his revolver and pressed himself against a house wall.

Scared to death, Rebekah buried her head in her arms as several more shots rang out. An angry voice hissed, ‘You bloody fool, Shaun. You’ll have a whole heap of them down on our heads now!’

‘Not if I stop the other one getting away!’

Rebekah forced herself to look up as the gun fired again, and she saw the Black and Tan fall. She wished she hadn’t looked. A hand took her arm, lifting her to
her feet and the hat was removed from her head. She stared into the face of a dark curly-haired man, who returned her scrutiny with a mixture of annoyance and concern. ‘Are you all right?’

She bit her lower lip. ‘My knees hurt! And I think I’ve laddered my stockings,’ she stammered.

‘I’m sorry about that.’ His gaze took her in slowly. ‘You were coming to visit I take it?’

‘Y-yes!’ She smoothed back her hair nervously. ‘I’ll come back another time – when Old Mary’s alone!’

‘I’m sure she’d like that.’ He handed back her hat and smiled.

‘Danny, what the hell—!’ The voice was angry.

Rebekah jumped and her gaze darted to the other, younger, face. It was spotty and there was a trickle of blood at the temple.

‘Who are you? Speak fast and say the right words, or I’ll blow you to pieces,’ said its owner.

‘Shut up, Shaun!’ ordered Daniel in a weary voice. ‘Can’t you see that she’s terrified out of her wits.’ He turned to Rebekah. ‘You’ve got nothing to be frightened of. We won’t hurt you.’

‘You mightn’t!’ Her voice shook despite all her efforts to control it. ‘But he’d kill me if he had half the chance. And I know why! But I only came to say goodbye to Old Mary. I’ll be leaving Dublin in a day or two.’

‘You’re leaving?’

‘Yes!’ She did her best to infuse assurance in her voice. ‘So you see, I won’t be around to tell anyone.’

‘She’s only saying that,’ interrupted Shaun, scowling. ‘Listen to the way she speaks. She’s one of them.’

‘I’m half Irish,’ said Rebekah desperately. ‘My father’s family have lived here for hundreds of years. We’re for Home Rule! And Mama is too. Although she’s from Liverpool and was a Quaker, so she hates the fighting.’

‘A Quaker! Maybe you’re one of Cromwell’s soldiers’ descendants?’ Shaun spat on the ground at her feet and his eyes darkened. ‘We haven’t forgotten what he and his troops did to our ancestors, have we now, Danny?’

‘You’re not listening, Shaun,’ said Daniel, frowning. ‘Her mother’s a Quaker and she’s from Liverpool. Cromwell’s men were mainly Puritans. There’s a difference. She’s not involved in our fight.’

‘She’s still a witness.’ The other’s expression was stormy. ‘And how do we know she’s telling the truth about her father? He doesn’t sound like one of us.’

‘She’s not going to say anything.’ Daniel’s eyes met Rebekah’s again. ‘Are you?’ he said softly.

‘I’m leaving, aren’t I?’ she retorted swiftly, but determined to say what she thought. ‘I will say, though, that I just can’t understand why he had to fire on them first when there wasn’t a fight. It’ll
cause reprisals, and you must know how savage and bloody they can be.’

Daniel’s expression tightened. ‘We’ve lost two brothers in an ambush. You’ll have to forgive Shaun his desire for revenge.’

‘It’s not for me to forgive,’ she said, flushing. ‘But what about those two mothers in England who’ve now lost their sons? It’s just so pointless.’

Daniel shook his head slowly. ‘If you’re a Quaker then you can’t begin to understand what drives a man in such a situation. You’d best get going.’ He turned away, but Shaun made an exasperated noise.

‘Are you bloody crazy, Danny? You can’t take her word that she’ll keep quiet. Let’s at least tie her up until we get away. If she’d been one of our women caught by the Black and Tans, they’d treat her different. See the flesh on her!’ His hand moved unexpectedly to squeeze her breast.

Rebekah gasped and instinct brought up her hand but she gained control of herself before the blow could land. Even so Shaun raised his gun, and she felt sure he would have hit her if Daniel had not turned and gripped the back of his collar, dragging him backwards. ‘Go, girl!’ he said, spinning his brother round and forcing him into the house.

She stared at him a moment longer, then went off in the direction of the river. When she reached the quayside her knees gave way unexpectedly and she sank on to the ground. She felt sick, thinking of
how close the bullets had been and of the two men’s blood on the ground. Then she heard running feet and turned and saw Daniel.

‘I just wanted to check you were all right,’ he said.

‘Of course I am!’ There was a touch of anger in her voice as she began to struggle to her feet. He took hold of her shoulder and helped her up.

‘Leave me alone.’ She was near to tears as she pulled herself free. ‘Why bother with me? You must see dead men all the time. What’s one stupid girl, sickened by the sight of blood?’

‘I didn’t fire the gun,’ he said in a low intense voice. ‘And I don’t see death as often as you seem to think. I’ve said I’m sorry. I can’t do anything else, except perhaps see you home?’

‘I don’t want you to.’ She turned her back on him and looked over the river. ‘Just go away.’

There was a silence but she knew he was still standing there behind her. She was filled with a strong feeling of apprehension. He was not going to go away. Why? And why be scared? She only had to scream and someone would come to her help. ‘Please go,’ she whispered unevenly.

‘I’ll see you home,’ he insisted. ‘Could you wait here for five minutes?’

‘No.’

‘Why not?’

‘That’s a daft thing to say.’ Her tone was incredulous.

‘I suppose so. You could still wait. Or is it that you’re going for the soldiers?’

‘It’s what my father would have me do.’ She paused, thinking of the brutality of some of the Black and Tans. ‘But I don’t like what the soldiers do either.’

‘Good.’ There was relief in his voice. ‘My brother’s a hot head and he shouldn’t have done what he did, but I’m glad you’re not a girl who’d go screeching to the military.’

At that she turned and looked at him. ‘Maybe I should have screeched when you brother first fired. Sniping at people is despicable! Or perhaps, when he touched me, I should really have yelled. He should not have hurt me – where he—’ Her voice tailed off and a line of colour ran up under her skin.

‘No, he should not have,’ said Daniel, shoving a hand into a jacket pocket. ‘And I know it should be Shaun saying sorry, but I couldn’t get him to do that. Surely you’ll accept my apology?’

‘I don’t know why you think I should,’ she said coolly. ‘But it does say in the Bible that we should forgive our enemies, so I suppose I’ve got to accept your apology.’

A smile lightened his expression. I’m no enemy of yours. And I’m thinking that some girls would have made a worse shananakins of it all, but you’re a rare one with a head on your shoulders.’

She frowned at him. ‘If I had screeched like a
banshee then I don’t doubt your brother would have shot me.’

‘Perhaps. He’s more nervous than he appears, you understand.’ His voice was serious.

She raised her eyebrows. ‘He surely has cause to be if he goes shooting off guns! Someone else might have seen him.’

‘They’ll keep their mouths shut,’ he said with a certainty that she understood.

They fell silent and she looked away, flustered by his stare. ‘Your brother said that Old Mary was your aunt.’ Her tone was stilted. ‘She never mentioned having family alive.’

‘She isn’t a real aunt. Was it her soul you were after?’

Rebekah felt like laughing hysterically. ‘That’s the kind of thing you Catholics said to my
great-grandmama
who came over from Lancashire during the Great Hunger to help feed the starving! Your faith is priest-ridden so I know when I’d be wasting my time.’

He grinned. ‘What’s your name?’

She hesitated before saying clearly, ‘Rebekah.’ There was a hint of hauteur in the look she gave him. ‘And yours, I remember, is Daniel – a good Bible name.’

‘Aye. He had to go into the lions’ den.’ His smile faded. ‘I’ve got to get my brother away, but I’d still like to see you home.’

Her eyes narrowed thoughtfully. ‘You don’t trust
me, that’s what it is. You want to make sure that …’

‘No!’ he interrupted. ‘That’s not my reason. Think, girl. There was no need for me to follow you here. I could have just run.’ He added in a softer voice. ‘Wait for me here by the river. Give me a quarter of an hour.’

She laughed sharply. ‘You said five minutes, five minutes ago! There’s no cause for me to wait. I can’t wait! I’m meeting—’

But he was already running up the street. ‘Wait!’ he called.

For several minutes Rebekah stood looking after him. He was crazy to think she would hang about for him. Her father would be furious if he knew that she had said as much as a good morning to a rebel. He had been paranoid for months, fearing a shot in the back because he worked for a British civil administration in utter chaos due to Sinn Fein’s refusal to accept the ruling of British law courts and the collection of taxes. Besides, Willie would be waiting for her. It would be sensible to go right now. She chewed a strand of her hair. He had probably only told her to wait to give him and his brother time to get away. She should have marched straight to the barracks and told the soldiers what had happened, never mind standing and listening to his excuses. He didn’t fire the gun … So? He had still been there, and his brother had. Why had she stayed listening to him? He was not even what you would
call devastatingly handsome or even very tall. The dark part she would grant him, and he had brown eyes that had a way of looking at her that made her – No, she would not think of how he made her feel. He was not worth wasting her thoughts on. She shifted her feet restlessly. He had a button missing from the top of his shirt and wore no collar. Wasn’t there a woman in his life to sew a button on?

A tap on her shoulder caused her to whirl round. ‘I’m glad you waited,’ said Daniel. He had been less than ten minutes.

She tilted her chin. ‘Who said I was waiting for you?’ She turned and began to walk away.

He fell into step beside her. ‘If you were waiting for someone else, he obviously hasn’t turned up.’

‘I wasn’t meeting him here.’ She did not wait for him to ask where but said stiffly. ‘Is Old Mary all right? The Black and Tans will search the street and ask questions.’

‘I doubt she’ll tell them anything.’

‘Probably not.’ Rebekah pushed back a strand of blonde-streaked brown hair from her eyes and sought safety in thinking of the old woman. ‘Her memory’s queer. She can talk about the old days like they were yesterday, but yesterday might never have happened.’

He nodded. ‘You must have a lot of patience. I found it hard going because she kept thinking I was a lad after I told her who I was.’

‘I listen more than talk.’ She glanced at him and
then away. He looked like he needed feeding up.

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