Authors: Roberta Grieve
Ellie tried not to feel too disappointed as she left the shop and pushed her way through the crowds which thronged Colchester’s narrow High Street. It was only what she’d expected – although she’d set out full of confidence.
She’d tried four shops already and no one seemed to be interested. No – that wasn’t strictly true. Two of the buyers she’d spoken to had been very impressed with her samples. But one had indicated that, because they were individual designs, there would only be a limited number available and therefore would be too expensive for his shop. And the other had been very enthusiastic until she told him that she could not produce them in the quantities he wanted.
‘Why don’t you get the design printed on to the material and run off as many as you can sell? I’d buy them in bulk – at the right price,’ he said. ‘You’ve got to produce them in quantity if you want to make a profit.’
She agreed – up to a point – but the whole idea was that no two of her scarves were alike. She could tailor the design to what the customer wanted – like an art commission in fact. After all, silk painting was still only a hobby.
But was it? Since the day she’d picked up her brushes again she had begun to feel like her old self. Even the problems with Alex had faded now that she had something else to think about. Her old ambitions were stirring once more. Painting scarves wasn’t just something to fill the empty hours. If she could sell just a few it would prove to Alex and everyone else who’d laughed at her ambitions how wrong they’d been.
Ellie turned into a narrow lane just off the High Street. She might as well try one more shop before giving up.
, was painted in flowing script over the blue-painted shop front. It was just the sort of shop Ellie had imagined selling her scarves, its window draped in purple velvet with a matching hat, handbag and gloves tastefully arranged in the centre, a chiffon scarf thrown artistically across the bag. But it wasn’t a patch on any of hers, Ellie thought. She hoped the shop owner would agree.
Thirty minutes later she was drinking Earl Grey out of delicate bone china, trying to give the impression that she had business meetings like this every day of the week. Her samples were spread across the table in the back room and Mrs Marshall, the shop’s proprietor – ‘Call me Sylvia, dear’ – was enthusing about the colours and designs as she ran a
-and-mint-green scarf through her long slim fingers.
‘I was trained as a milliner and it was always my dream to have my own little shop,’ she told Ellie. ‘But so few ladies wear hats nowadays – except to weddings. So I’ve started branching out into other accessories – even a bit of costume jewellery. I want to expand my stock even more and your scarves are just the thing. So individual, dear.’
When she left the shop, promising to deliver a dozen scarves by the following week, Ellie could hardly stop herself leaping in the air and shouting for joy. The silly grin was still on her face when she started up her car.
Sylvia had asked her if
scarves would be exclusive to her shop. Ellie didn’t want to be restricted to one outlet. ‘Exclusive to Colchester,’ she said, thinking quickly.
Sylvia had smiled happily. ‘I’ll mention that in my advert in next week’s local paper,’ she said.
It had been Norah’s idea to give Ellie’s ‘creations’ as she called them a name. ‘You must have your own label,’ she’d said, suggesting she use her name. Now each scarf was signed
in the corner – with an ‘e’ because it looked more classy, as Norah said.
As she drove through the country lanes, her mind busy with new designs, she itched to get home and take up her paintbrushes. Her success in Colchester was the start of a new phase in her life. Next week she’d try Ipswich, maybe London – not her old home ground but exclusive West End shops. She couldn’t wait to get home and tell Alex her news, hoping he’d be pleased for her. But something told her not to say anything just yet.
When she opened the front door she was greeted with silence. Mrs Mills had gone home, leaving a casserole simmering on the Aga and a note on the table saying that Alex had phoned to say he would be late.
Disappointed, Ellie sat down to her own meal. She was just finishing when the phone rang.
‘Sorry, darling. Crisis at the Manchester plant. I’ve got to rush up there. Hope to be back tomorrow if I can sort things out.’
‘Do you have to go tonight?’
‘If I drive up now, I’ll miss the worst of the traffic and be ready to start first thing.’ He gave a short laugh. ‘Don’t say you’ll miss me.’
‘Of course I will,’ she replied.
‘I phoned earlier. Where were you?’
‘Colchester.’ Ellie was about to tell him her news but he laughed again.
‘Spending my hard-earned money, eh?’ He laughed. ‘Must go. See you tomorrow but if I can’t get back, I’ll ring. You will be in, won’t you?’
She put the phone down and went back to the dining room. She couldn’t quite put her finger on it but Alex hadn’t sounded his usual self. It wasn’t unusual for him to go away on business and, in a way, she was relieved. Perhaps now wasn’t the right time to tell him she was going into business for herself.
Harry was working even longer hours in the market. Sid was still unwell and he had taken over the more arduous work of running the stall. Leaving Sid to serve the customers, he did all the setting up, the dismantling of the stall and packing away at the end of the day. Recently, he’d started doing the books as well.
If only Sid would admit that he’d never be able to work full-time again, they could find someone else to take over the pitch. Then Harry could look for a ‘proper job’ doing something he enjoyed. He still hoped to work with cars one day. But Sid was determinedly cheerful in the face of his recurring stomach problems and swore he’d be ‘back on his feet’ before long. Until then, Harry continued to keep things ticking over for his mate.
Today he was worried about Mary too and had popped home to make sure she was all right. He crossed the landing to her room. She was lying on top of the bed, fully dressed, her hands clasped across her stomach. Even in the dim light filtering through the partly closed curtains, he could see she was in pain.
‘You must see a doctor, Mum.’ The old name that he seldom used now slipped out. She
his mum in all but blood ties. He laid his hand on her arm, smiling down at her.
‘I’m OK, son. Just needed a rest, that’s all, but I should get up. I’m due on the ward this evening.’
‘Oh no, you’re not. I’ll phone from the box on the corner – tell them you’re sick. You’re in no condition to be running around with bedpans.’
Mary didn’t argue and, as Harry went down the echoing stairs and through the empty shop, he thought she must be really ill to take time off work. Why shouldn’t she, when Bert was earning good money at the Club? He always seemed to have money to splash around – although Harry knew he was prone to being ‘a bit short’ when the rent was due, or when Mary desperately needed something like a new winter coat. Although she only worked part-time now, Mary had told him she needed the little bit of security it gave her, and he could understand that.
After phoning the hospital he hurried across the road to the market, pushing his way through the crowds thronging the stalls. The cacophony of horns blaring, lively chatter and the stallholders’ raucous patter was music to his ears.
Sid was inundated with customers and he greeted Harry with relief. ‘It’s been bedlam ’ere, mate,’ he gasped. ‘Am I glad to see yer – I need a breather.’
Harry finished weighing out the potatoes and tipped them into the woman’s waiting bag, topped it with a hearty cabbage and a pound of cooking apples. He totted the money up in his head and gave her change, then turned without pause to the next in line.
Half an hour later there was a pause and Harry turned to Sid, who was sitting on an upturned orange box. ‘You OK, mate?’
‘Bin overdoin’ it. The doc told me, no lifting ’eavy weights.’ He gave a short laugh. ‘Ow does ’e expect a fruit and veg man to avoid ’eavy liftin’? Them spud sacks are no joke.’
‘You should’ve waited for me to come back. Sorry I was so long,’ Harry apologized.
‘Mary all right, is she?’ Sid asked, his kindly face creased in concern.
‘I’m worried. She ought to see the doctor – but you know Mary – stubborn as hell.’
‘Well, tell ’er not to leave it too long – like I did. They said at the ’ospital, if I’d gone sooner they could’ve done more for me.’ He put his hand on Harry’s arm. ‘You don’t think she’s got my trouble, do yer?’
Despite several operations, Sid continued to lose weight and often seemed to be in pain and Harry knew his old friend was more ill than he let on. He would never tell anyone exactly what the doctors had said, but Harry had his suspicions.
He hastened to reassure him, knowing how fond Sid was of Mary. ‘I’m sure it’s nothing too serious.’ He coloured a little. ‘It’s just – women’s trouble. You know.’
Sid nodded in understanding. ‘Still, she oughter get ’erself sorted out. Don’t do to leave these things – you tell ’er from me.’
Harry turned to serve another customer, glad for once that the crowd was thinning out. Maybe he’d be able to get off early for a change. He turned back to Sid and suggested he go home. ‘You look knackered, mate. I can finish up here,’ he said.
When he got back to the flat, it was dark and chilly and he realized he’d forgotten to bank up the range before leaving. He riddled the dead ashes and carefully relit the fire, waiting until he was sure it had caught, before going into the next room to check on Mary. She was still lying on top of the bed as he’d left her and he tucked a blanket round her. Best let her sleep, he thought.
As he went downstairs to fill the coal bucket, the side door opened and Bert came in. He grinned at Harry. ‘Still runnin’ around after that lazy mare?’ he asked.
Harry brushed past without replying.
When he got back upstairs, Bert was sprawled at the kitchen table. ‘No grub ready, I see.’
Harry stared him down, remembering how as a small boy he’d been intimidated by this nasty little man. But no more. Even for Mary’s sake he wouldn’t keep quiet.
‘Always thinking of yourself,’ he said. ‘What about Mary? She’s in bed – sick. You haven’t even asked how she is.’ He turned away and threw coal on to the fire, his knuckles white on the handle of the shovel.
Bert backed down, as he’d known he would. ‘I thought she was at work,’ he mumbled.
‘She’s too ill to go to work. You’ll have to get yourself something to eat. I’m going to see if she’s OK.’
Mary still appeared to be sleeping but she opened her eyes. ‘Back so soon? I’ll get you some tea.’
‘No you won’t. I’ll get some fish’n’chips later. How do you feel now?’
Mary struggled upright. ‘A bit better. It’s OK if I don’t move around too much.’
‘Well, you stay there, I’ll fetch you a cuppa.’
Bert was having a wash at the kitchen sink – too lazy to go downstairs and use the bathroom – and he moved grudgingly aside to allow Harry to fill the kettle. He slicked his hair down with Brylcreem and put his jacket on. ‘I’m off,’ he announced.
Harry banged the kettle down on the cooker. That selfish bastard hadn’t even looked in on his wife. Concentrating on getting the teapot out of the cupboard, laying a tray with cup and saucer, a plate with a couple of biscuits to tempt Mary’s appetite, he knew at that moment he was quite capable of going after Bert and giving him a good hiding.
When his breathing was back to normal he took the tray into the bedroom, almost dropping it when he saw Mary sitting on the edge of the bed, doubled over in pain, her face grey and beaded with sweat.
He had a long wait before the doctor appeared, his steps echoing in the long empty corridor. ‘Are you the next of kin?’ he asked.
‘Not exactly. I’m her foster son – I’m not sure where her husband is at the moment. He went out just before she collapsed.’
‘Well, I ought to have a word with him. We’re going to have to operate. Tell him to come in as soon as he can – I’m on duty all night.’
‘I’ll try and get hold of him,’ Harry said, then blurted out, ‘Can I see her? She’s going to be all right, isn’t she?’
‘Oh, I’m sure she is. But I think we ought to let her rest now. Come back at visiting time tomorrow.’ The doctor was already turning away. ‘And don’t forget to let her husband know.’
‘Sod Bert,’ Harry muttered as he went down the stairs and crossed the entrance lobby. ‘He doesn’t care anyway.’ Scarcely reassured by what the doctor had said, Harry wasn’t sure what to do next. He couldn’t just go home and wait.
He spotted a telephone near the door. Sheila – he ought to let her know her mother was ill. Not that she could do anything at this time of night and with two little kiddies to look after. But he’d feel better talking to someone.
He fumbled in his pocket for some coppers, struggling to remember the number. Sheila didn’t sound unduly worried when he told her what had happened.
‘Lots of women have the same trouble,’ she said airily. ‘She’ll be fine once she’s had the operation.’ She rang off after promising to come to the hospital the next day.
Reluctant to go back to the empty flat, Harry walked through the deserted streets. It was much later than he’d realized – he must have been at the hospital hours. He cut across the tarmac play-area in front of the flats where Mary’s mother had lived for such a short time, and where her Auntie Vi still lived. He ought to let her know too, he thought. But no lights showed in the twelve-storey block which dwarfed the remaining terraced houses around it. Harry smiled, remembering Ellie’s description of the lit-up flats as fairytale castles. In the dark, they could be anything your imagination wanted them to be. The smile changed to a twisted grimace as he wondered yet again where Ellie could be, wishing there was some way he could let her know how ill her mother was.
Beneath the sadness of missing her, as he still did even after all this time, Harry felt a surge of anger. However unhappy she’d been, she shouldn’t have hurt her mother like that. The anger helped mask his worry that something must have happened to her. He could understand her cutting herself off from him, but to lose touch with her mother so completely….
He sighed and turned the corner, passing the deserted market and quickening his steps as he neared home. He must get some sleep, otherwise he’d never get up in the morning, and Sid was depending on him to do the Covent Garden run.
The flat appeared to be deserted. Bert was at the club of course. He stumbled upstairs, but before entering his own room he opened the door to the room that had been Ellie’s. Reminders of her were everywhere – her paintings pinned to the walls, her school blazer still hanging behind the door. He sighed – he must make one more effort to find her – and not just for Mary’s sake either.