Authors: Amy Myers
Agnes stretched luxuriously. She would make the most of her extra half hour in bed while she still could, for the precious gentle mound in front of her would next summer become another small person demanding her time. There would be no extra half hours, even if she was entitled to them as parlourmaid. Myrtle, the housemaid, had been eager to help look after the new baby, when Mrs Lilley had said there was no question of Agnes’s leaving the Rectory.
Where would she go anyway? Jamie and she had no home together as he’d been away at the front all their married life, and she wasn’t going to live with his parents, thank you very much. Her own parents didn’t have room for her and the children, but from the Rector and Mrs Lilley there was always warmth – in their hearts at least. Practical warmth was harder to come by in this December of 1917; coal rationing meant cold bedrooms in order to
keep the rest of the Rectory reasonably warm. The eight hundredweight a week allowed for houses over twelve rooms didn’t go far here, and many rooms had been shut up tight for the duration of the winter.
‘Cold hands, warm heart,’ as Mrs Dibble valiantly maintained, and ‘You should thank your lucky stars we work in the warmest room in the house’ – the kitchen.
Funny how things changed … Once Agnes had been terrified of old Dribble Dibble, the housekeeper, once there had been
, and the worst you had to worry about was whether your black was ironed well enough for the afternoons, and whether the drawing-room fire would choose to smoke the room out today. Now, in the fourth year of war, there was Jamie to worry about, far away with the 7th Sussex on the Western Front, and looming beyond that, when – if ever – this war would come to an end and who would win it?
Life in this once sleepy Sussex village of Ashden had changed beyond what anyone could have imagined in 1914, and she sometimes worried about what kind of life would await two-year-old Elizabeth Agnes as she grew up. Agnes cocked an ear. Where
she? There was a suspicious quietness in the tiny box room adjoining Agnes’s, which meant Myrtle had probably already dressed her, and together they had staggered down the back stairs to light the stove ready for Mrs Dibble. Mrs Dibble terrified Agnes no longer: Mrs Dibble no longer carolled hymns throughout the day, and Mrs Dibble no longer moved briskly and purposefully, as though she were commanded by God to organise the whole world as well as the Rectory. Not since the summer, when it had happened.
Margaret Dibble was up early this December day. She had to be, for this was the day she had set aside to make the Christmas puddings. Puddings? What a joke. She didn’t laugh though. She hadn’t laughed at anything since her son Fred had been murdered out on the Western Front – that’s the word she used, for all the Rector’s kind talks. Not even Elizabeth Agnes could make her laugh, and not even her own grandchildren. Which is why she had to force herself to make the puddings today. It was the only way she could acknowledge she was still part of this gloomy old world. She and Percy had lived all their married lives in the Rectory, and so to them the Rectory
the world. If it continued to have its Christmas puddings, no matter what, Margaret would have done her bit to cock a snoop at the Kaiser, who’d brought all this on us.
‘I’ve brought the brandy, Mrs Dibble.’ Mrs Lilley appeared in her kitchen, waving a small bottle, and vanished again.
wouldn’t have happened before the war. Firstly even Mrs Lilley would have thought twice about coming into the kitchen, without at least knocking, and secondly, Percy would have been in charge of the brandy like he was of the wine – what there had been of it. But since 1914 there had been no brandy at all, and Mrs Lilley had been forced to beg some from Lady Buckford, the Rector’s mother. This year even her reserves were at rock bottom, like everything else, but as Mrs Dibble had said: ‘If there’s no brandy, the pudding won’t keep.’
Thanks to that Kaiser and his submarine blockade the brandy was almost the only proper ingredient she did have.
In the early days of the war she’d had her own private little stores of food tucked away, but they were all gone now, and she was down to pleading and queuing at the village shops like everyone else. She’d had one piece of luck, however. Under a Ministry of Food scheme she gave food-economy demonstrations in Tunbridge Wells, and when it had come to showing them how to make a wartime Christmas plum pudding she’d managed to keep some of the fruit back for the Rectory.
She’d had to demonstrate the Food Controller’s recommended Christmas dinners for them, and a sorry business that was: it was a pretty kettle of fish when the Lord’s birthday would be celebrated with rice soup, haddock, roast fowl, plum pudding (if you could call it that), and caramel custard. It
all right, but when you saw the reality – and the price of it – you could have wept. Then there was cake. Who would have thought that English teatime would be as good as abolished? Restaurants could only serve you two ounces of cake, and that wasn’t worthy of the name half the time. You could serve as much as you liked at home, but with milk controlled and now sugar rationed, let alone the perpetual battle for decent flour and the price of eggs, teatime was vanishing like a mirage in the desert.
Still, it was all to help the soldiers on the front, she told herself. Poor devils, like her Joe. He was in a so-called pioneer battalion, the 5th Sussex, but from what his wife said he was out
of the front line, making tunnels and digging the trenches.
‘Finished the tennis court, Percy?’ Margaret looked up
from her organising of ingredients into pudding basins, as his lugubrious face appeared through the tradesmen’s door.
‘I never thought I’d see the day I had to dig it up to grow vegetables.’ Percy looked as downhearted as she felt, and that succeeded in rallying her.
‘It’s that or starve. We’ve got to get potatoes somehow.’
‘I bet the blooming Kaiser isn’t eating potatoes.’
‘No. He’s too busy eating my sultanas,’ she snapped.
Plough up Britain, that was the new order from Whitehall. Everything, not just wasteland, but parks, lawns and private gardens were to be dug up; no more colourful cottage garden flowers, it was all vegetables from now on. Even Sir John and Lady Hunney of the Manor had dug up a lot of their grounds. Not that there were any proper farmers any more to help them tend them, and Margaret couldn’t see the august Lady Hunney out there with her fork and spade. Then last week some of the Land Girls lodging up at Castle Tillow descended on the place like a plague of locusts.
Margaret didn’t recognise Ashden any longer. The village was full of foreigners. Half of the old village were away at the front or dead, and a load of strangers had taken their place. The Towers was now army officers’ quarters, the Land Girls had replaced the Norvilles at Castle Tillow, and Ashden Manor was an officers’ hospital. Sir John worked most of the time in Whitehall – something to do with the Army – and Lady Hunney had moved into the Dower House.
Where was it all going to stop? At the Rectory, Margaret had vowed. There’d be little change here beyond what the
thieving hands of this war had already taken from it – if Margaret Dibble had anything to do with it. Makeshift puddings, or no makeshift puddings, she forced herself to pick up the wooden spoon to stir her unappetising mixture. This year, there was no one here to do it but her. That Kaiser had a lot to answer for.
‘Wonderful news, Mrs Dibble.’ Mrs Lilley shot through the door again shouting in excitement, and triumphantly waving a letter. ‘Caroline is coming home for Christmas!’
Margaret beamed. ‘That’s what I call
news, Mrs Lilley.’ Her spirits were suddenly lifted, who cared about food shortages? Miss Caroline would make the Rectory come alive again. She could see her bright, enquiring eyes and curly brown hair now, popping her head round the door. ‘Are those raspberry buns I can smell baking? I’m starving.’
Mrs Isabel was still at home, the eldest of the five Lilley children, but though she’d changed for the better now she’d taken over running the village cinema, it wasn’t the same as having Miss Caroline around. Mrs Isabel’s husband, Robert Swinford-Browne, was away in Flanders flying balloons, which still sounded funny to Mrs Dibble, although Percy told her it was a very dangerous job because they were so easy to shoot down. Why send them up then? she’d asked.
‘To see what’s going on,’ Percy explained.
‘Like spies? The Unseen Hand?’
Percy had been stumped. ‘You can’t call ’em the Unseen Hand if they’re floating around in big balloons.’
The news about Miss Caroline pleased Margaret for
Mrs Lilley’s sake too. Her presence would make a
‘Any chance of Miss Felicia coming home or Master George or Miss Phoebe?’ Margaret was sorry she’d asked because Mrs Lilley looked downcast again.
‘We don’t know yet. It all depends what’s happening at the front. The fighting in France is continuing much later in the year than before, so I suppose the offensive might go on all over Christmas, and of course, there’s always some fighting somewhere. Caroline says she hopes to bring with her that nice Belgian captain she works with. You remember he was staying with the Hunneys last Christmas and came over here quite often.’
Another bedroom to air, another mouth to feed. Still, she’d manage, Margaret supposed, though she didn’t approve of those Belgian ways of his. Agnes and Myrtle had thought it a fine joke for Miss Caroline and the captain to cook servants’ luncheon and then serve it to them, but it was stepping too far out of line for her.
She picked up the wooden spoon again. Once upon a time Miss Caroline would have been here to help stir the puddings. It was a tradition in the Rectory that all the children would have come to take their turn, but Miss Caroline had always clamoured to have the first stir. Now, four of them were over the hills and far away, and Mrs Isabel was too scatty and preoccupied with herself to think of such trivial things as Christmas puddings.
Perhaps Mrs Lilley saw her doleful face, for she hesitated before leaving. ‘I’ve never dared ask you before,
Mrs Dibble, but I wonder as Caroline isn’t here whether I might stir the pudding this year?’
Margaret could have cried with pleasure, as she handed the spoon to Mrs Lilley. ‘Three times round for the Three Wise Men,’ she instructed, as though everyone in the Rectory didn’t know it perfectly well.
Times changed, but the world went on and soon Miss Caroline would be home again.
Caroline groaned. Surely it couldn’t be time to get up yet? Last night there had been another terrible Gotha air raid over London, and though no bombs had fallen on them in Queen Anne’s Gate, the warning maroons, the noise, the searchlights, and the uncertainty of waiting for the all-clear had kept them awake well into the early hours. London was now mainly spared the attention of Zeppelins, but in return they had been presented with an even worse hazard, the Gotha aircraft, which regularly appeared with their cargo of bombs, dropped to devastating effect. Londoners regularly took to the Underground stations for shelter at night, and a whole organisation was springing up to put order into the ensuing chaos down there.
Thump on the door. ‘Hot water, Caroline.’
She was now officially a WAAC – and so was Ellen, her old friend from her Dover days. How long ago those now seemed. The difference between them was that Ellen’s job was to look after the housekeeping in their lodgings at Queen Anne’s Gate while Caroline was clerk assistant to two army captains, Luke Dequessy and Yves Rosier. Ellen had thought this a cosy number after a year abroad
as a VAD, from which she had returned with pneumonia. Because of the nature of their job, Yves and Luke had needed someone discreet, and at Caroline’s suggestion Luke had pulled strings to get Ellen transferred. Her cooking was erratic, to say the least, but her liveliness and good humour made up for it.
‘Secret Blooming Service Bureau. Blimey!’ Ellen had been overawed when first approached, and had gleefully signed the Official Secrets Act. ‘I won’t tell a soul how many spuds you eat for supper, Caroline,’ she had promised.
‘And particularly not Mrs Dibble, when you come to the Rectory again.’
There was another reason for discretion. Caroline had decided – against Yves’ wishes – not to tell her parents that she and Yves were lovers. It would hurt them too much if Father and Mother knew that their bed at Queen Anne’s Gate was a double one. Three years ago the idea would have seemed unimaginable, but the war had changed everything. It was necessary to look to the present as well as the future, when one could not know how little of the latter remained. The older you were the more difficult it was to keep up with the times, Caroline realised, especially for her parents, living within the confines of Rectory life.
Yves was not only a Roman Catholic, but married, and when – if – this war was ever over, as a captain in the Belgian army he would be honour-bound to return both to his country and to his wife, even though his wife had refused to consummate their marriage. Even worse awaited him if the war went against the Allies – but that she dared
not contemplate. Surely the vast sacrifice of human life in the last three years could not have been in vain?
As a Belgian army intelligence liaison officer operating between London’s Secret Service Bureau, army intelligence at GHQ Montreuil and King Albert of Belgium at La Panne, Yves was all too often away, although London was his base. Luke, in the British army, liaised between London, army intelligence in Folkestone and GHQ. The three of them, Yves, Luke and she, shared a small office in Whitehall Court, where she acted as assistant to both of them, a difficult task at times, especially at present. Yves had confided to her that King Albert was not always convinced that Belgium’s best interests lay with fighting with the Allies, which was the reason he had always insisted on being in sole command of his own army.
Their rooms in Queen Anne’s Gate were far from ideal, especially for Ellen. They were lodged in a large nest of servants’ rooms, at the top of the house, the rest of which was given over to offices. This meant a steep climb for them, especially for Ellen since the only kitchen was in the basement, though they were as a gracious gesture allowed to use the only bathroom which was on the second floor. The bath was an august and temperamental beast, however, and on cold mornings hot water brought up from the bathroom in ewers was a welcome substitute.