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‘There might be money in it!’
‘No. Papers, by the feel of it.’ Ma’s marriage lines? Her own birth certificate? Photographs? Letters, even? ‘Ma would’ve spent it if there’d been money. I – I’ll leave it, Nell, if you don’t mind.’
‘Please yourself, I’m sure.’ Nell was put out. ‘Nuthin’ to do with me, though your ma left a will, I know that for certain. Me an’ Tommy was witness to it!’
‘But she had nothink to leave.’ Meg pulled in her breath.
‘Happen not. But to my way of thinking, if all you have to leave is an ’at and an ’atpin and a pound in yer purse, then you should set it down legal who you want it to go to! Dolly wrote that will just after the war started; said all she had was to go to her only child Margaret Mary, and me and Tommy read it, then put our names to it. Like as not it’s in that envelope. Best you open it.’
‘No. Later.’ Quickly Meg took out another envelope. It had Candlefold Hall written on it and she knew at once it held photographs. To compensate for her neighbour’s disappointment she handed it to her. ‘You open it, Nell.’
‘Suppose this is her precious Candlefold.’ Mollified, Nell squinted at the photograph of a large, very old house surrounded by lawns and flowerbeds.
‘There’s a lot of trees, Nell.’ It really existed, then, Ma’s place that was heaven on earth. ‘Looks like it’s in the country.’
‘Hm. If them trees was around here they’d have been chopped down long since, for burnin’! And look at this one; must be the feller that ’ouse belonged to.’ She turned over another photograph to read Mr & Mrs Kenworthy, in writing she knew to be Dolly Blundell’s. ‘They look a decent couple. Bet they were worth a bob or two. And who’s this then – the old granny?’
A plump, middle-aged lady wearing a cape and black bonnet sat beside an ornamental fountain, holding a baby.
‘No. It’s the nanny,’ Meg smiled. ‘Nanny Boag and Master Marcus, 1917, Ma’s written.’ Her heart quickened, her cheeks burned. All at once they were looking at her mother’s life in another world; at a big, old house in the country; at Ma’s employers and their infant son.
Hastily Meg scanned each photograph and snapshot, picking out one of a group of servants arranged either side of a broad flight of steps – and standing a little apart the butler, was it, and the housekeeper? And there stood Ma, all straight and starched, staring ahead as befitted the occasion.
Another snap, faded to sepia now, of three smiling maids in long dresses and pinafores and mobcaps, in a cobbled yard beside a pump trough.
‘See, Nell! Norah, Self & Gladys. That’s Ma, in the middle. And look at this one!’
Tents on Candlefold’s front lawn, and stalls and wooden tables and chairs, and Ma and the two other housemaids in pretty flowered frocks and straw hats. Only this time the inscription was in a different hand and read. Candlefold 1916. Garden Party for wounded soldiers. Dolly Blundell, Norah Bentley, Gladys Tucker. Her mother, sixteen years old. Dolly Blundell! So Ma had never married!
‘What do you make of that, Nell?’ Her mouth had gone dry. ‘Ma’s name was –’
‘Ar. Seems it’s always been Blundell.’
‘So whoever my father was, he didn’t have the decency to marry her. I am illegitimate, Nell!’
Tears filled her eyes. When she hadn’t been sure – not absolutely sure – it somehow hadn’t mattered that maybe she was born on the wrong side of the sheets. But to see it written down so there was no argument about it – all at once it did matter! Someone had got a pretty young housemaid into trouble, then taken off and left her to it. And that girl became old long before her time, with nothing to lean on but her pride!
‘There now, queen.’ Nell pulled Meg close, hushing her, patting her. ‘Your ma wasn’t the first to get herself into trouble, and she won’t be the last. She took good care of you, now didn’t she? Didn’t put you into an orphanage, nor nuthin’. And if the little toerag that got you upped and left, then Doll was better off without him, if it’s my opinion you’re askin’.’
‘I’m sorry I opened that case. I never wanted to.’
‘Happen not, but at least we’ve got one thing straight; somethin’ your ma chose to keep quiet about. An’ don’t think I’m blaming her! She brought you up decent and learned you to speak proper. You’d not have got a job in a shop if she hadn’t.’
‘Edmund and Sons? That dump!’ Years behind the times, it was, and people not so keen to part with their clothing coupons for the frumpy fashions old man Edmund stocked. ‘I’d set my heart on the Bon Marche, y’know. Classy, the Bon is.’
The Bon Marche had thick carpets all over; the ground floor smelled of free squirts of expensive scent, but you had to talk posh to work there.
‘You were glad enough to go to Edmunds, Meg Blundell. Your wages made a difference to your ma.’
‘Ten bob a week, and commission! Girls my age are earning fifty times that on munitions!’
‘So go and make bombs and bullets.’
‘I might have to, Nell. Trade’s been bad since clothes rationing started. The old man’s going to be sacking staff before so very much longer.’
‘Then worry about it when he does! Now are you going to get on with it?’ Nell glanced meaningfully at the attaché case. ‘Your mother’s will is in there somewhere.’
‘You’re sure?’ Meg slid the photographs back into the envelope. ‘I know she used to talk about a bankbook; said if we were careful with the pennies we’d go and live in the country one day.’
‘That’s daydreamin’. We’re talkin’ about fact – like all that’s in this house, for one thing, and the bedding and –’
‘There’s not a lot of that left. The people from the health department took Ma’s mattress and bedding when they came to stove the place out; you know they did!’
‘They always do, with TB. You were lucky they didn’t take more! But there it is, girl! It’s marked on the envelope, see? Will. Told you, didn’t I?’ Nell clenched her fists, so eager were her fingers to light on it. ‘And there’s more besides; that bankbook, I shouldn’t wonder.’
Nell was right, Meg thought, picking out two smaller envelopes, glancing inside them. Ma’s will, and the bankbook! It made her wonder – just briefly, of course – if this was the first time Nell Shaw had seen inside the case.
‘So is this what you and Tommy signed?’ Meg offered the sheet of paper. ‘All I own is for my daughter, Margaret Mary Blundell. Straight and to the point, wouldn’t you say?’
Her words sounded flippant, though she hadn’t meant them to. It was just so sad that it made her want to weep again.
‘Your ma wasn’t one for wasting words. Keep it safe, girl. That’s a legal document, properly witnessed and dated. And you’d better open the bankbook!’
To be told of the existence of a bankbook had always been a comfort in a strange sort of way. Not many in these parts, Meg had been forced to admit, would have one; wouldn’t have a magic carpet that might one day take them to a cottage in the country. It had been something to cling to when bad times got worse. To return to the countryside had been Ma’s shining dream. She had often talked about how clean the air was; how sweet the washing smelled when you took it from the line. They would have a little garden, one day. Dreams. Ma had had them in plenty.
‘You want to know how rich I am, then?’
‘Of course I do!’ Nell was past pretence.
‘Four pounds, eighteen and sixpence.’ Meg’s whisper broke into a sob. ‘Oh, God love you, Ma!’ Ma had thought near on five pounds was riches, yet it wouldn’t have paid for the funeral tea – if they’d had one; if food hadn’t been rationed.
Nell Shaw gazed disbelieving at the figures, then, swallowing on her disappointment, said, ‘I told you so, didn’t I? Dolly did have something put by, though only the good Lord knows how she did it, and her never once in debt to the tallyman. Is there anything else, Meg?’
‘Only her jewels.’ A string of pearl beads, a marcasite brooch in the shape of a D, a wristwatch and a lavender bag, daintily stitched. Meg held it to her nose. ‘Suppose the lavender came from Candlefold garden.’ Tears still threatened. ‘Would you like the brooch, Nell – a keepsake?’
‘No, ta. Best you should have it, girl. I wouldn’t mind the lavender bag, though.’ A glinty D-brooch wouldn’t serve to remind her of Dolly as much as the sweet-smelling sachet. She smiled, seeing in her mind’s eye a fair-haired girl hanging stems of lavender to dry in the sun, then sewing them into muslin.
‘I suppose that tea’s gone cold? Never mind. See if you can squeeze another cup. Think I’ll have a ciggy.’ She gazed lovingly at the cigarette she took from her pinafore pocket. ‘Terrible, innit, when They cut down your fags? This one’s my last. Think I’ll nip to the pub later on; see if they’ve got any under the counter. Landlord was saying that his beer supplies are going to be cut; something to do with the breweries not being allowed enough sugar. Things are coming to a pretty pass when They start interferin’ with the ale. Bluddy Hitler’s got a lot to answer for!’
She took in a deep gulp of smoke, holding it blissfully, blowing it out in little huffs.
‘I don’t know how you can do that.’ For the first time that day Meg laughed. ‘Swallow smoke, I mean. I once had a puff at a cigarette and I nearly choked!’
‘So don’t start. Once you get the taste for them you’re hooked, and the scarcer they get in the shops, the more you want one! I never thought I’d live to see the day I’d queue half an hour for five bleedin’ ciggies!’ Nell threw back her head and laughed, then returned her gaze to the little case. ‘Anything else in there?’
‘I know what there isn’t. There doesn’t seem to be a rent book, Nell. Will the landlord let me stay on in the house, do you think?’
‘Dunno. Best you say nuthin’. If he doesn’t find out your ma’s passed on, he’ll be none the wiser, will he? Where did she usually keep it?’
‘I don’t know. Come to think of it, I’ve never actually seen one. All Ma said every Saturday morning was, “That’s the rent taken care of and the burial club seen to. What’s left in my purse is ours, Meg.” I don’t even know how much she paid, or who she paid it to.’
‘Well, my ’ouse is five shillings. Yours would be a bit more, bein’ bigger.’
‘I should’ve asked, I suppose. I just presumed it was paid Saturday mornings, though I never saw anyone call for it. But I’ll have to find that book and try to catch up with the arrears. It must be at least six weeks behind.’ She didn’t like the house in Tippet’s Yard, but she didn’t want throwing onto the street until she was good and ready to go!
‘And that looks like the lot – except for this.’ She picked up a blue envelope. Perhaps it was the missing rent book, though she doubted it, even as she pushed a finger inside it.
‘Oh! Look!’ She felt the colour leaving her cheeks and a sick feeling on her tongue. ‘It’s my birth certificate. I never knew I had one.’
‘Everybody’s got to have one It’s the law!’ Nell caught the paper as it slipped from Meg’s agitated fingers. ‘Oh, my Gawd! Name of mother, Dorothy Blundell. Name of father – not known. Place of birth, Candlefold Hall, Nether Barton, Lancashire. Well …’
‘So I am illegitimate, in spite of the wedding ring! Wouldn’t you have thought there’d have been a letter from Ma, or something? But not one word of explanation, even at the end!’
‘Maybe not, but what was you expectin’ – an apology? So your mother and father wasn’t wed; does that make it the end of the world? And if it’s explanations you’re lookin’ for, then that birth certificate says it all! You thought you was born here, in Tippet’s Yard, but it was at that Candlefold place, so what you’ve got to ask yourself is why!’
‘Exactly! Why, for one thing, didn’t you tell me, Nell?’
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