Copyright Â© 2015 Tricia Haddon
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or criticism or review, as permitted under the Copyright, Designs and Patents
Act 1988, this publication may only be reproduced, stored or transmitted, in
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concerning reproduction outside those terms should be sent to the publishers.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are
either a product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously.
Any resemblance to actual people, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
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Dedicated to my parents and with grateful thanks to my family and friends for their help and encouragement.
Always tell the truth. That's what we are told as children. But do we tell the truth to someone who hasn't asked the question? Truth is final; no room to manoeuvre; the damage is done.
She opened her umbrella as she picked her way across the green towards the church. In her hand was a single red rose. Feeling strands of damp hair sticking to her forehead, she drew the umbrella closer to her head and stepped up to the gate. A sycamore, its branches stripped of leaves by the tail-end of an Atlantic hurricane, separated the lichen covered stones from recent memorials. She noticed that three more graves had been dug since her last visit and glanced down at the shiny brass plaques, but didn't recognise any of the names. Bending down she placed her rose in front of a wooden cross and whispered, âHappy birthday, Mum.' Tears streamed down her face, mingling with the drizzle. She wiped the sleeve of her coat across her cheeks, and wondered why she hadn't thought to bring any tissues. She sniffed hard and stood up. Moving to the end of the mound, she stared at the light brown soil interspersed with chalk. â
You'll miss me when I'm gone
,' her mother's words that she had dismissed with the casualness of youth, now seemed a just retribution. She would have to decide about a memorial stone soon. Someone, she couldn't remember who, said that you had to wait a year for the ground to settle.
She jumped and spun round, lifting her umbrella. A man stood in front of her, the tip of his jacket collar touching the lobes of his ears.
âI'm sorry if I startled you, but I think you've left your lights on. Is that your Morris Minor outside?' He frowned and looked down at the cross.
âMy God, it's Jenny â Jenny Porter, isn't it? I don't believe it.' A broad smile stretched across his sharp features. He held out his hand, but then let it drop by his side.
Is it him?
she thought, her heart banging against her ribs.
No, it can't be. Not here.
As the man turned his head slightly, she noticed a mole that interrupted the line of his jaw. âMartin.'
âI'm sorry, I shouldn't have disturbed you.' He turned to go.
âNo, no â it's alright.' Her chest tightened. She swallowed. âI never expected to see you again. You moved away. You don't live here any more.'
âYes, we did, and I don't. But my parents moved back about ten years ago. They always liked it up this way. That's their house down there.' He turned and pointed in the direction of a red tiled roof.
âYes, it is nice here. But not today â I mean with the rain.' She blinked several times to refresh her eyes, thinking how awkward she must sound.
âYou were crying the last time I saw you,' he said softly.
So he remembers. It was here by the windmill. But I'm years older now.
She flicked her head back and ran her fingers through her hair, pushing it off her face. âI'd better go â my lights. I'm always doing that when it's dark during the day.' She didn't move.
âYes, it's easily done.' He gazed at her. âIt's great to see you again, Jenny. I can't believe it.'
âYes, it's great to see you too,' she said. Words that she had always imagined saying had vanished. âI must go â my lights.' She drew her umbrella closer and started walking towards the path. She knew he was watching her, and it took all her strength to place one foot in front of the other.
âI'm sorry about your parents,' his words carried across the churchyard.
She turned and nodded. He was still standing at the foot of her parents' grave. A pied wagtail bobbed out of her way as she met the solidness of the path. She shut the gate and, glancing back to check that she was out of sight, ran across the green towards the faint yellow beams. Balancing the umbrella against her body, she leant on the car and fumbled in her coat pocket for the key, her hand trembling as she tried to force it into the lock.
For God's sake, go in. Why won't it go in?
She removed it and tried again, it turned. Relieved, she threw her umbrella onto the passenger seat and sank behind the wheel.
Why is he here?
He must have lost someone too
, she thought.
I should have asked. I must go before he comes out. He can't see me â not looking like this.
She pulled the choke out and turned the ignition. The engine groaned.
No, not the lights, please start, come on, don't let me down.
She adjusted the choke. On the third attempt the engine fired. She released the handbrake and drove away.
Jenny thought of nothing else for the rest of that afternoon. She now had a new image of Martin. It would take some getting used to; she had been comfortable with the old one. His words replayed in her mind as she stared at her son, who was twirling a sausage around with his fork in a pool of tomato sauce. She slammed her hand on the table. âStop playing with your food, Nicky.'
âI'm not hungry. Look, it's a helicopter.'
âYou're not hungry because you've been stuffing your face with chocolates,' said his sister, leaning over the table towards him.
âYou said you wouldn't tell.'
âWell, you shouldn't have hit me then, should you?'
âShe had some too,' Nicky turned towards his mother.
âBut I've eaten all my dinner.'
âFor God's sake, stop it you two,' Jenny said, irritated that her thoughts were being interrupted. She glanced up at the clock on the kitchen wall. âLorna, finish your pudding, then go and get ready for Brownies. You'll need your coat, it's still drizzling. No pudding for you, Nicky. I should be able to trust you not to eat sweets before dinner.'
âJen, let it go, what's the matter with you?' Robert, her husband, stopped eating and looked up. âHe's eight years old. He's going to eat sweets if they're around. Did you do anything today?'
Jenny winced as she spotted a sliver of cabbage stuck between his front teeth. âI went to the churchyard. I told you I was going. It's Mum's birthday; she would have been seventy-four today.'
âI'm sorry, Jen, I should have remembered.' He reached for the tomato sauce. âI thought I'd never get home tonight; the A23 was a bloody nightmare.'
âBut, Mummy, why did you go to the churchyard? You said Granny's gone to heaven.'
âShe has Nicky, and so has Granddad. I go there to feel close to them.'
âIs that because they lived near there? Why don't you go to their flat?'
âNicky, that's enough. Just get down,' said Robert.
âI miss Granddad.' His lower lip quivered as he slid off his chair.
âI know Nicky, we all do, come here.' Seeing him hesitate, Jenny pulled him towards her and hugged him.
âYou must have been the only person there on a day like this,' Robert said as he pierced a sausage with his fork.
âYes, I was,' she said, thinking that this was the first time she had lied to her husband.
Jenny Porter was bored. Dropping her book to the floor, she threw the bedcovers back and knelt at the window, dipping her fingertips in and out of the pools of water that lay on the sill. Lifting the net curtain she peered out, hoping to spot her friends as they returned to school after lunch. But the pavements and roads were deserted. Above the frosted roofs she could see the sails of the windmill that stood on top of a flint barn. Miss Bruce, who she thought was the prettiest teacher in the whole world, had said that years ago it had been a landmark for ships; and that a famous painter â Jenny couldn't remember his name â had painted a picture of it.
The smock windmill, a manor house and a church were all that remained of the downland village of West Blatchington; one of several that surrounded Brighton and Hove. The farm labourers' cottages had been demolished at the end of the Second World War, to make way for the housing estate. Jenny remembered how excited she had been when she was told they were going to live in a new flat with a bathroom. Homes for heroes, her father had called them.
Jenny coughed and fell back onto her bed. She was convalescing from measles. On the fourth day of her illness, a plethora of scarlet spots had appeared, making it difficult to tell whether she was red with white spots, or white with red spots. She winced. Sliding her hand under her pyjama bottoms, she dug her thumbnail into the largest and meanest spot, and watched as blood oozed through the angry skin. She basked in the satisfaction of self-injury. Reaching across to the bedside table, she grabbed a brown fluted bottle and pulled a tuft of cotton wool from a roll. Soaking it in the cold liquid, she dabbed the swelling, until it resembled a fluffy pink cloud. The ritual was complete.
Her mother was in the sitting room. The painful sound of metal on metal, as she scraped yesterday's ashes, had ceased; so had the crunching of newspaper into loose balls for tinder. Jenny listened for the familiar crackle as the fire burst into life, but it didn't come. She thought she could hear someone crying. But there was only the two of them in the flat, and mums don't cry. She stiffened. There was shuffling on the lino outside her room. She relaxed, thinking that her mother was returning to the kitchen, and how she always made tea after she lit the fire
She listened for the rush of water from the tap, the clank of the kettle settling on the gas ring; but the flat lay heavy with silence.
Jenny wriggled to the end of the bed and peered around the edge of the door. She could see along the landing and into the kitchen.
Her mother was kneeling on the floor, her calves encased in brown wrinkly stockings. Jenny thought they looked like thick worms. On her feet was a pair of scarlet slippers.
That's why it's so quiet. She's cleaning the oven. But she did that on Sunday,
Why is she doing it again?
She heard mumbling, and felt guilty that she was spying on her mother.
What's she doing? Something's not right
Where's her head?
Her heart pounded as she tried to make sense of what she could see. The rest of her body no longer existed; no spots, no itching, just a drum thumping inside her head. An icy wave washed over her. She scrambled from the bed screaming. âMummy, Mummy, Mummy!'
Her mother was sitting on the floor with legs outstretched, and her head drooping onto her chest. âHelp me up Jenny,' she croaked, reaching for the open oven door, âhelp me up.'
Jenny's nose wrinkled and her eyes watered as she heaved her mother to her feet and away from the smell, supporting her as she staggered to the edge of the wooden draining board. Her mother reached over the sink and rattled the metal catch on the side window. It flew open, sucking out one half of a pair of blue gingham curtains, which billowed like a flag in the wind. She gasped three times and retched into the sink. Grabbing a towel from the rail on the larder door, she wiped it across her face, and leaning on Jenny, lurched towards the nearer of two matching stools that stood either side of the gas stove.
âMum. Are you alright? You frightened me,' her voice wobbled.
âGo back to bed, Jenny. Go back to bed. I'll just sit here for a bit. I'll be fine. I just left the gas on too long.'
Jenny didn't move, but stared at her until convinced that what she said was true. She turned to go and knocked her right knee against the oven door. Numb to physical pain, she stumbled along the landing and flopped down on her bed. She started to cry, her nose and mouth buried in the eiderdown. The gaps between her sobs lengthened, until she fell asleep. Ten minutes later, she woke shivering. Looking along the landing, she saw her mother sitting at the kitchen table holding her head in her hands, with a glass of water at her elbow. Jenny crawled to the top of the bed and slid underneath the covers.
Her bed was moving. It was dark. Jenny squinted and rubbed her hands across her eyes. Her mother had pushed her bed away from the window, and was drawing the curtains.
Alice was forty-six years old and no more than five foot two inches in height. Her thin-lipped face was framed by tight dark curls.
Jenny's lower lip trembled and tears trickled down her cheeks as she remembered. Her mother pushed her bed back against the wall, and sitting beside her, stroked her damp hair away from her eyes and kissed her forehead.
âDon't cry, Jenny,' she whispered. âI'm feeling better now. I'm sorry I frightened you.' She patted Jenny's shoulder and stood up. âI'm going to light the fire in the sitting room now. Do you want me to put your light on?'
Jenny didn't reply, but rolled over onto her side and lay on the far edge of the bed, her back to her mother, and the tip of her nose touching the ice-cold wall.
Barring illness or injury, Charlie Porter's key turned in the lock at six o'clock every weekday for fifty weeks of the year.
A stocky man of average height, he would fling his trilby hat onto the hook on the cupboard door in the hallway, exposing a shock of snow-white hair. Hanging his coat under his hat, he would whistle his way up the stairs to the landing. Entering the kitchen he would plant a kiss on Alice's cheek, and begin a diatribe on the day's events. Today was no exception.
Hearing her father's footsteps, Jenny shuffled to the end of her bed and listened.
âDo you know what Alfie Moore said today, Gal?' His wife's Christian name was a mystery to most people, as Charlie always called her Gal to her face, and Missus to everyone else.
âHe told Bill Gardner that he would move the sacks, I tell you, Gal, that man hasn't got the bloody guts to stand up to anyone. You know what that means don't you? We'll all have to lug bloody sacks about now, even though there are lads there half our age. That Alfie's a bloody yes man if ever there was one.'
Charlie had worked in the baking powder department of Green's Cake Mix factory since 1946. For him, life had ended the day he had been demobbed after twenty-five years of regular army service. When anyone asked what he did for a living, he would tell them that he had reached the rank of Regimental Sergeant Major in the second battalion of the Duke of Wellington's Regiment. He would then add âWest Riding Division', as if worried that he hadn't provided quite enough information. He endured a domestic life now. In Charlie's eyes his fellow workers weren't real men. They lacked backbone. Real men would never be satisfied with a nine to five existence.
âYou look terrible, Gal. Your face and your eyes, they're all red. Have you been crying?'
âCharlie â for God's sake, don't you know the date? It's the 14
of January, as if I could ever forget. My ulcer's been giving me gyp as well. The pain's been unbearable, even with the tablets. You'll have to help me with the dinner.'
âDon't â don't upset yourself, Gal.'
âI can't help it Charlie. I did something terrible today â unforgivable. I don't know what came over me. I just couldn't help myself.'
Jenny waited open-mouthed for her father to ask what it was.
What would she say?
She strained her ears.
âYou'll hear from the hospital soon, Gal, then you'll be fine. What's for dinner?'
Alice had never been fine. All her teeth had been removed on her twenty-first birthday in an attempt to cure her stomach pains. By twenty-five, she had been in every hospital within a five mile radius of her home, for ailments ranging from diphtheria to in-growing toenails, and everything in between. âMile End Hospital, Bethnal Green Infirmary, London Hospital Whitechapel, oh, and I nearly forgot St. Bart's. I've been in them all,' she would say as if listing holiday destinations. Then after a full description of the ailment which had led her to each one, would add, âBut there's always someone worse off than yourself, that's what I say.'
Alice had lived with her parents and younger brother, in three rented rooms; part of a terrace that lay to the south of Roman Road. At fourteen, she was working fifty hours a week as a pattern cutter. âThere's many a time I've seen rats as big as cats, and bigger, in that factory at Aldgate,' she told Jenny on numerous occasions, stretching out her arms as if her words weren't enough of a description.
Charlie's family occupied the whole of a house that stood directly opposite Alice's. Whenever he returned home on leave, he would see her sitting squashed between his half sisters and brothers, eagerly anticipating his latest tales from the empire.
By 1934 Alice's health had improved. With a group of fellow Sunday school teachers, she went on a five day holiday to Brussels, bringing home a brass paper knife with the
shaped as the handle. In 1940 at the age of thirty-three, she married Charlie Porter.
âHe's been all over the world, but he came home and married me,' Alice would say.
Charlie would then add wistfully, âMind you, those Anglo-Indian girls, with their pale skin and dark almond eyes, beauties they were, beauties.'
Jenny scrambled to the top of her bed.
âHow's my girl today?' Charlie poked his head around her bedroom door.
âBetter. I'm getting up for dinner.' Jenny wanted everything to be normal again, how it was before this afternoon.
âThat's my girl.'
Jenny slid into her slippers, and attempted to tie the cord of her dressing-gown around her waist; but her earlier strength had deserted her. She picked her book up from the floor and shuffled into the sitting room.
The armchair under the brass standard lamp in the corner was either empty or occupied by Charlie. The ceiling above was the colour of strong tea. Charlie sighed, sank into the cushions and lit a cigarette. Jenny sat at his feet and undid the laces on his shiny leather shoes. Usually, she only needed one tug to remove each shoe. But today several were necessary. She toppled backwards with the second shoe in her hand.
âThat's better,' sighed Charlie lifting his feet onto a leather
Jenny replaced his shoes with slippers, and stretched out on the rug in front of the fire. She supported her head with her hands, and waited.
Any minute now
, she thought, until what she looked forward to every evening, would begin.
Charlie cleared his throat. âNepal,' he said.
âKathmandu,' she answered.
Suddenly, Charlie reversed the order.
Their duet continued until Charlie ran out of countries or capitals. He said that Jenny was the only child in her school, and probably in the whole country, who knew the name of every capital city from Australia to Zanzibar. If dinner was delayed Charlie would relate one of his army exploits, which Jenny relished long after Alice had grown impatient of yet another tale. They were usually sparked by a word, which reminded Charlie of a person or event. Each story embellished with the name and rank of the soldier involved.
âCharlie, would you pierce this tin for me.' Jenny looked up from her book. Her mother was leaning against the door surround holding a tin of peas.
âCaptain Pearce, now he was a man who knew how to command, I remember when we were out on patrol one night. There was a rustling in the undergrowth. We all thought it was bandits, but no, it turned out to be a black panther didn't it? Killers they were â even took kids. We saw its eyes burning like hot coals in the darkness. Ready to spring it was, but quick as a flash Captain Pearce drew his revolver and shot it dead. By God, we had some good times back then.'
âCharlie, the tin,' said Alice wearily.
âWhat's that book you're reading Jenny?' Charlie asked as he returned to his chair.
âIt's about Rome. We've been doing Romans at school, so Miss Bruce dropped it off for me. I'll read you someâ¦
the boys grew up to be very strong and clever and they decided to build a town on the spot where the shepherd had found them. But they had a big
fight about who should be in charge. Romulus overpowered his brother Remus who died. So Romulus became the first king of this town which he named Rome
.' Jenny looked up. Her father was asleep.
A wooden table covered with a check tablecloth and laid with three dinner plates, was carried from the kitchen, by Alice at one end, and Charlie at the other. They placed it in front of the fire.
âThat was lovely, Gal,' said Charlie when he'd finished soaking up the gravy on his plate with a chunk of white bread. He pulled a large handkerchief from his trouser pocket and with one wipe removed the drips from his mouth and chin.
Jenny watched her mother like an anxious parent, as she picked at a tiny piece of liver in the centre of her plate.