‘Aunty Annie!’ Clara Pascoe, looking even lankier in utility fashion than she had in uniform, bent for a kiss, even though she was standing on the ground and Annie on the stoop.
‘Less of that, young lady. Makes me feel about ninety.’ In fact, there were not quite nine years in age between them: they had spent a few months at opposite ends of the village schoolroom before Annie went into service.
‘Where are the boys?’ Clara asked, taking off her coat and hat and hanging them on the hooks beside the kitchen door.
‘Having their tea up at Mrs Peters’. They’ll be down later. You remember Mervyn, don’t you?’
‘The little ginger chap clinging to that old East Africa Pilot like the ratline of a Carley raft?’
‘Not so little, now, I’d say he’s as tall as you, and sharp as a tack. Well, he always was that. His dad’s been demobbed at last, remarried a Polish woman―you know it was because Mervyn's mum died he ended up here―and he's going back to Bridstow. John and Tommy are fair cut up, though. They worship him.’
Clara gestured at the table, set with a plate holding slices of real ham, four small pieces of cheese, two hard-boiled eggs cut in half, a bowl of salad, dishes of piccalilli and beetroot, thick-cut bread and a pat of butter the size of a matchbox. ‘You mean all this is for us? Annie―you devil. You must’ve half-starved to manage it.’
‘Nonsense, dear―it’s much easier to lay on a spread in the country. You wait to see what I have for later. Sit down and tell me all your news.’
‘The worst of it is you’ll be seeing a lot―well, a bit―more of me. I got the transfer to Cheltenham.’
‘Oh, well done. I am pleased. Have you found somewhere to live?’
‘Sharing digs―well, an actual flat, as it happens, with a girl I knew at Wee Fea. I don’t know how she does it. Hospital contacts, I suppose. She’s not a nurse, mind,’ Clara said with a hint of pride. ‘Assistant in the Path. Lab. She went to university.’
‘As long as she isn’t above filling you a hot-water bottle when you’re feeling a bit off-colour.’
‘That’s nice. Women understand each other, don’t they? The laughs we had up at the works, for all it was long hours and dirty. I’d never been in a pub before I went with those girls. And when my Tom―well, I shouldn’t have managed without them, that's all.’
After their collation, Annie―uncharacteristically reckless with the ration―brewed a fresh pot of tea and brought from the pantry a plate covered with a mesh net. She removed it with a small, embarrassed flourish.
‘What on earth―it looks like a Fuller’s―’
‘I haven’t seen one of those since―well, before I was posted to the Orkneys, anyway.’
‘Try some.’ Annie cut two generous wedges.
Clara nibbled. ‘It’s ever so nice, but a bit queer too, isn’t it? I daresay it’s just not being used to the sugar.’ She washed it down with a draught of strong tea. ‘War or no war, I never thought to see shop-bought cake in your kitchen, Annie.’
‘Nor would you, but it was a present from Mr Fleming―well, I say from him, but it was Dr Fleming who came by on her rounds. And on wash day, too. I didn’t know what to do with myself. Things have got a deal more free and easy because of the war, but all the same. She said some pal of his from Canada had sent a hamper, and they’d never eat it all themselves.’
‘Very civil of them,’ Clara raised a satirical eyebrow.
‘Oh, he was all right, I suppose. And it cheered you up to see a smiling face in the dragon’s den. It was just the vague way he had of looking at you as if you were either going to swoon dead away from the effort of lifting the coal-scuttle or give him a ticking off for not wearing his jaeger vest, and he didn’t quite know which it was. You often find it with the handsome ones, though. They haven’t a clue about women. About people, actually. Until they get to thirty or so and a pretty face isn’t enough any more. He must be about that now.’
‘No sign of it, I have to say. He’s filled out a bit on all that―whatever they eat in Canada.’
‘Maple syrup and―moose fritters,’ Clara suggested, inspired.
Annie laughed. ‘He has a proper man's physique, now. Bit of shape to him. He should have gone into the pictures: he would have given Clark Gable and that a run for their money. Selfish of his mother to keep him tied to her apron strings.’
Clara made a derisive noise that before the war Annie might have reproved her for. ‘If he was Clark Gable he wouldn’t let her. He hasn’t any gumption. And look what he’s gone and done, swapping one mother for another.’
‘Well, there is that. She looks even older next to him. After forty, it’s either your figure or your face.’
‘Hasn’t she half, though―remember when Peggy’s second was being born feet first and she showed up on Biscuit?’
‘Golly, were you there?’
‘Mm. Long leave. She looked like―Belle Starr or something, with that red hair of hers.’
‘I always said your head was turned by them Westerns, Clara. You'd think even an outlaw would've known not to keep a body nattering at the front door in her pinny with her hair screwed into a scarf and a sheet halfway through the mangle.’
‘D’you know what? I think she―never mind.’
‘Well―I think she likes talking to you because you remind her of when she lived at Mrs Clare’s.’
Annie looked down at the seersucker tablecloth and rubbed an imaginary stain. She poured them both more tea.
‘It was terrible bad luck. And the poor little mite up in Scotland―you still miss what you’ve never really had, I know that much.’
‘Ye―es. But if I’d thought it might be something to do with Mrs Clare I mightn’t have said what I did.’
‘To Dr Ma―Fleming?’
Annie nodded. ‘Well, she was whingeing about the surtax, and the National Health coming in, and I said I didn’t pretend to understand it, but―you won’t remember Norah, because I wasn’t quite five when she died.’
Clara shook her head. ‘I only knew you had a sister who died of TB.’
‘They did their best for her. But they just couldn't afford it, not on Dad's wage and whatever your mam could send, not with so many of us. It went to her spine. Mam and Dad wanted us younger ones to spend time with her, you know, because she hadn’t much of it left. So we used to play around her bed. And she just stared past us at the shadows the lamp cast on the wall: it was autumn. Her face looked like a skull with eyes set in it and hair on its head. She couldn’t talk; her vocal cords were gone. She used to weep with the pain, but no sound came out. The last month Dad had to tie her down, she thrashed about so much. The Cottage Hospital wasn’t there then―so she went to the workhouse infirmary in town. Mam and Dad pawned their coats, their Sunday clothes and all but two blankets to pay the drayman. She’s in a pauper’s grave, Clara. They never had so much as a photograph of her. And I said if the National Health meant that someone like Norah could be treated decent without beggaring her family, then I was all for it and the doctors were surely clever enough to manage somehow.’
Annie drew her index finger and thumb together across her eyes. When she lowered her hand to the table, it was shaking. Clara covered it with hers.
‘You were bloody right to say it, Annie,’ she said fervently. ‘It’s a new world we’re living in, and a better one, I hope. None of the old bowing and scraping. Come on. Let’s do the washing up, and then we’ll walk up to Peters’ farm to meet the lads, eh? I’ve a few sea stories saved up for Mervyn.’