Читать онлайн «The Willow Pool»
‘I did what I could, once I was working. And I think she’d have gone into that sanatorium if the doctor hadn’t mentioned charity. There was something about her, Kip; a sort of – of – gentility. Even Nell noticed it. Maybe it was because she’d been in service, you see; housemaid to the gentry.’
‘She was different, I’ll grant you that. Amy said she always kept herself to herself.’
‘Which wasn’t hard in a dump like this.’
Apart from the entry and a sign to the left of it marked ‘Tippet’s Yard’, you could pass by and never know it was there.
‘It isn’t such a bad little place, Meg.’ He wanted to take her in his arms and kiss her breathless, but he held back, sensing her need to talk. He loved her, did she but know it, though he’d never dared say so; never gone beyond hugs and goodnight kisses.
‘Not bad, but the Corporation would’ve had it pulled down if the war hadn’t come. If it hadn’t been for flamin’ Hitler, me and Ma would’ve been in a decent house now, with an inside lavvy and a garden. But where have you been, Kip? It was a long trip this time.’
‘Sydney and back by way of Panama. Never been through the canal before. It’s amazing. Fifty miles long and about a dozen locks. Australia’s a smashin’ country. Real warm and no blackout, them being a long way from the war. And when it’s Christmas there, it can get up to eighty degrees! The opposite to us, see. Upside down!’
‘Kettle’s boiled. Tea won’t be long.’
She looked up and smiled and it did things to his insides. This was the time to tell her how he felt, ask her to be his girl, but instead he said, ‘I’ve brought you a few things. There’s not such a shortage of food down under as there is here.’ He emptied the carrier bag he had brought with him.
‘Kip! Are they black market?’
‘No. All fair and square.’
‘Oooh!’ A packet of tea, a bag of sugar, tins of butter, corned beef and peaches and – oh my goodness, silk stockings! ‘Kip Lewis, you’re an old love and you’re to come to Sunday tea, and share it. I’ll ask Nell and Tommy too.’
‘By Sunday I’ll be gone again. Got the chance of another trip the same, so I signed on for it before I came ashore. The Panama run is a good one – safer than the Atlantic. And don’t look so put out, Meg Blundell! You won’t miss me!’
‘But I will! When I saw you on the doorstep I was real glad to see you, honest I was! It’s been awful these last six weeks. I just couldn’t believe Ma was gone; not even after the funeral. I’ve been putting things off, I suppose – y’know, sorting her clothes and going through her papers.’
Papers. That was a laugh. Ma’s special things, more like, locked inside a battered attaché case and, since the war started, never far from her side, night or day.
‘That’s sad, Meg.’ He took the mug she offered, then sat on the three-legged stool beside the fireplace. ‘And I interrupted you, when you’d made up your mind to tackle it.’
‘No, Kip. I wasn’t given much choice. Nell said if I didn’t shift meself and sort things out, she’d batter me! None of Ma’s things fit Nell, so she’s goin’ to find good homes for the best of them and take the rest to the jumble for me. She’s been a brick. I don’t know what I’d have done without her that morning I found Ma.’
She closed her eyes, biting her teeth together, swallowing hard on a choke of tears. Then she drew a shuddering breath, forced her lips into a smile and whispered, ‘Now you know how glad I was to see you, Kip. There’d have been another crying match if you hadn’t come when you did. I’m grateful. Honest.’
‘I’d come to ask you out, but I can see you’ve got other things on your mind. What say I leave you in peace, girl, and take you out tomorrow night? There’s a good band at the Rialto. Fancy going to a dance?’
Meg said she did, and would he call for her at seven, so they could get there early before the dance floor got crowded. And could they find a chippy afterwards, and walk to the tram stop, eating fish and chips out of newspaper?
‘The only way to eat them, sweetheart,’ he smiled. ‘I’ll be here on the dot. Want me to wear my uniform or civvies?’
She liked to see him in his walking-out rig, peaked cap tilted cheekily. And besides, uniforms were all the fashion these days, and popular. Men in civilian clothes were not!
‘Then I’ll leave you to get on with things.’ He placed a finger beneath her chin, kissing her lips gently. ‘Sure you don’t want me to stay?’
‘Sure.’ This was the last thing she could do for Ma, and she needed to be alone. ‘See you tomorrow, Kip, and thanks a lot.’
She watched from the doorway as he crossed the yard, bending his shoulders as he entered the alley that led to the street. When Tippet built his yard in 1820, Meg thought, men must have been a whole lot shorter. She looked to her left to see Nell, arms folded, on the doorstep of number 2, waiting to be told about the visitor.
‘There’s some tea in the pot,’ Meg called. ‘It’ll take a drop more hot water. Want a cup?’
Nell said she did, ta very much, and wasn’t that Kip Lewis who just left?
‘It was. And I’ve done what you wanted, Nell. Just got to put them in bags.’
‘And her case? Have you opened it yet? I think you ought to. Dolly told me there was a bankbook in there, and her jewels.’
‘Ma had no jewellery, and I don’t think there’d be much in the bankbook.’ If a bankbook had ever existed, that was. ‘And I haven’t got around to the case yet. One thing at a time, eh?’
‘Then you’d best do it whilst I’m here to give moral support, as they say.’
Dolly Blundell had been a quiet one, Nell thought frowning. Never said two words when one would suffice. She had always chosen not to reply to questions concerning Mr Blundell, and had answered Nell’s probings about why the tallyman never called at number 1 with quiet dignity.
‘The tallyman doesn’t call because I don’t borrow. We manage. I’ve got money in the bank.’
Dignity. She’d learned it in service, Nell had long ago decided. How always to speak slowly and quietly; never to shriek or laugh loudly; always to hold her shoulders straight and her head high. There had been a dignity about her even in death, because who but Doll could fade away so quietly and with so little fuss? And who but Doll could look almost peaceful with her face pinched blue with cold, her shoulders leaning against a lavatory wall?
‘Saccharin for me, please.’ Nell was not a scrounger of other people’s rations, even though she had noticed the bag of sugar the moment she walked through the door. ‘An’ when we’ve drunk this, I’ll fold the clothes whilst you get on with seein’ to that case. I’ve brought a couple of carrier bags.’
Two bags, she thought, briefly sad. Her neighbour’s life stuffed into a couple of paper carriers. It was to be hoped, she thought, all at once her cheerful self again, there’d be more to smile about when Meg got that dratted case opened.
‘Cheers, queen!’ She lifted her cup in salute.
‘Cheers!’ Meg arranged her lips into a smile, liking the blowzy, generous-hearted woman, even though she drank gin when she could afford it, and swore often, and took money, some said, from gentlemen. Nell’s man had not come back from the last war, and she had remained a widow. Marriageable men were thin on the ground after the Great War, so Nell had become a survivor and laughed when most women would have cried.
‘And thank the good Lord the clocks have gone forward, an’ we’ve got the decent weather to come, and light nights.’
To Nell’s way of thinking the blackout was the worst thing civilians had to endure; worse even than food rationing. In winter, the blackout was complete and unnatural. Not a chink of light to be seen at windows; streetlamps turned off for the duration and not so much as a match to be struck to light a ciggy outdoors, because Hitler’s bombers, when they raided Liverpool, were able to pick out even the glow of a cigarette end. If you had a ciggy to light, that was.
‘Think I’ll put a match to the fire.’ Early April nights could be chilly. ‘And I suppose I’d better open Ma’s case. I’ve put it off too long.’
‘You have! What are you bothered about?’
‘Don’t know.’ Meg reached into the glass pot on the mantelshelf for the tiny key. ‘Nell – did Ma ever tell you about my father? I could get nothing out of her, so in the end I stopped askin’. Was he a scally or somethink?’
‘Dunno. Doll made it plain that the subject of your father wasn’t open for discussion. I never even knew if her and him was married.’
‘But she wore a wedding ring!’
‘Weddin’ rings come cheap, and ten bob well spent if it buys respectability. Your mother never said he’d been killed in the trenches either.’
‘But she wouldn’t say that when I was born four years after the war ended. I wish she’d told me, though. Had you ever thought, Nell, that my father could be a millionaire or a murderer? It’s awful not knowing, and all the time wondering if you’re a bastard or not.’
‘Now that’s enough of talk like that! Your ma wouldn’t have allowed it, and neither will I! Dolly asked me to look out for you, once she got so badly, so it’s me as’ll be in control, like, till you’re twenty-one. Doll wore a wedding ring, so that says you’re legitimate, Meg Blundell, and never forget it!’
‘OK. I won’t. And I’m glad there’s someone I can turn to, though I won’t be a bother to you.’
‘You’d better not be, and you know what I’m gettin’ at. No messin’ around with fellers; that kind of messin’, I mean. And where has Kip Lewis been, then?’
‘Australia. He brought me those things.’ She nodded towards the table. ‘You and Tommy are to come to Sunday tea. We’ll have corned beef hash, and peaches for pudding. How will that suit you?’
‘Very nicely, and thanks for sharin’ your luck, girl. Tommy’ll be made up too. Poor little bugger. He’s that frail he looks as if the next puff of wind’ll blow him over. Sad he never wed. But are you going to open that case or aren’t you?’
Nell was curious. Any normal girl, she reasoned, would’ve done it weeks ago. But Meg Blundell was like her mother in a lot of ways: quiet, sometimes, and given to stubbornness. And besides, there really could be a bankbook locked away, and heaven only knew what else!
‘I suppose I must.’ Meg gazed at the tiny key in the palm of her hand. ‘I don’t want to, for all that. I don’t want to find out – anything …’
She and Ma had been all right as they were and all at once she didn’t want to know about the man who fathered her. And when she turned that key it might be there, staring her in the face, and she might be very, very sorry.
She fumbled the key into the lock, turning it reluctantly. In the fleeting of a second she imagined she might find a coiled snake there, ready to bite; a spider, big as the palm of her hand. Or nothing of any importance – not even a bankbook.
She lifted the lid, sniffing because she expected the smell of musty papers; closing her eyes when the faint scent of lavender touched her nostrils. She glanced down to see a fat brown envelope, addressed to Dorothy Blundell, 1 Tippet’s Yard, Liverpool 3, Lancashire. The name had been crossed through in a different ink and the words Margaret Mary Blundell written in her mother’s hand. The envelope was tied with tape and the knot secured with red sealing wax. Meg lifted her eyes to those of the older woman.
‘You goin’ to see what’s in it, girl?’ Nell ran her tongue round her lips.
‘N-no. Not just yet.’ The package looked official and best dealt with later. When she was alone.
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