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‘Because I flamin’ didn’t know! Your ma had been living at number 1 the best part of a year when I moved into the yard! I just took it you was born in this house.’
‘Well I wasn’t, it seems, and it doesn’t make sense. Why, will you tell me, when she’d got herself into trouble, wasn’t Ma thrown out, because that’s what usually happened, wasn’t it? Unmarried mothers were thrown onto the street with their shame – or into the workhouse! They still are, even today!’
‘I’ve got to admit,’ Nell frowned, ‘that it’s all a bit queer – unless, mind, those toffs she worked for was decent people, and they helped her out.’
‘You think that’s likely?’
‘N-no. But your ma was a housemaid at Candlefold Hall, that we do know, and your birth certificate says you was born there, so there’s no getting away from that. Seems they didn’t show your ma the door – well, not until after she’d had you, Meg.’
‘All right. So maybe the Kenworthys were decent – Ma always spoke of the place as if it were – well –’
‘Flippin’ ’eaven,’ Nell supplied bluntly. ‘But any place would have seemed like heaven, once you’re reduced to livin’ in Tippet’s Yard!’
‘But Ma loved working there; she longed to go back. She once told me that the day she first saw Candlefold was one of the best she would ever know; said she’d never seen so many fields and trees and flowers. I don’t think she ever wanted to leave there.’
‘Then it’s a pity some fly-by-night got her in the family way, ’cause she never knew much happiness in this place. Where was your ma born, by the way?’
‘I don’t know. All she told me was that she was sent into domestic service as soon as she was old enough. She didn’t ever talk about anything before that. Not once. Her life began – and ended, I think – at Candlefold.’
‘There must’ve been a lot of poverty in Liverpool once.’ Nell threw a minute cigarette end into the fireplace. ‘People had so many kids they was sometimes glad to put them into orphanages, or send them to the nuns. At least Dolly kept you, girl. Happen she knew how shaming charity was.’
‘I think she must have, Nell. And I wasn’t being nasty when I said Ma should have left a letter. She worked her fingers to the bone for me, and if she didn’t want me to know about when she was a little girl, or how I was got, then that’s her business, I suppose. It makes you think, though …’
‘Ar.’ Nell got to her feet. ‘Don’t do to go dwelling on how exactly it was, if you get my meanin’.’
‘Which dark corner, you mean? Which hedgeback, and with who? And if he told her that if she loved him she would let him – you know …’
‘Let him have a bit of what he should’ve waited for till he’d wed her? Ar, men always said that; always will. It’s the nature of the beast, see?’
‘Kip Lewis hasn’t tried it on!’
‘Then just wait, girl! Even the best of them are after only one thing!’ She paused, red-cheeked, wondering if this was the time to warn Dolly’s girl how easy it was to get babies, and how difficult they were to get rid of! ‘Anyway, it’ll be up to you to put your foot down, Meg Blundell. You’ll never get a husband if you’re easy. Men don’t run after a tram once they’ve caught it! But I’ll be off to find a few ciggies, if you’re sure you’re all right?’ She picked up the carrier bags.
‘I’m fine, Nell – or at least I will be when I’ve weighed things up. Let’s face it, I didn’t catch Ma’s TB, I’ve got a job and a roof over my head. Things aren’t all bad, are they?’
‘Not when you look at it like that,’ Nell laughed. ‘G’night then, girl. God bless.’
Meg watched from the doorway until the neighbour who all at once had become her legal guardian crept on slippered feet into her house. The sky was darkening; best she should close the door, draw the blackout curtains. She ranged her eyes around Tippet’s Yard. Opposite, the little houses of Nell Shaw and Tommy Todd, and next to them, where numbers 4 and 5 once stood, an empty area. Ma had tried to dry washing there, but the clothes were covered in chimney smuts in no time at all, so she had given it up as a bad job and dried them indoors.
Beside the empty area was the coalhouse, where the coal rations were stored carefully in three separate corners, never to be borrowed from, nor stolen from. You had to be honest, Meg considered. It wasn’t right to steal from your own kind – especially when coal was rationed now to one bag a week for each household.
At the end of the yard were two lavatories and beside them, a washhouse. Once, Ma said, there had been earth closets and a midden, but the landlord was ordered by the Corporation to put in proper sanitation. So now there were water closets and the midden concreted over and a washhouse built – and the rents increased by a shilling a week!
But you got nothing for nothing, Meg shrugged, shutting the door on the miserable yard that had been condemned years ago. And Nell and Tommy were decent folk to have as neighbours.
She thought again about the rent book, then pushed it from her mind. She would worry about it tomorrow. Tonight, there was the sealed package to open, and only heaven knew what she would find inside it. Just to think of cutting the tape and breaking the seal made her uneasy.
‘Right then, Meg Blundell!’ She squared her shoulders and tilted her chin as her mother had done so often in the past. ‘Shift yourself! The blackout, a cup of cocoa and then the fat envelope!’
In that order, and no messing!
Tommy Todd paused beside his coal heap, listening to the sound of Nell Shaw’s slippers as they slithered and slapped across the yard.
Nell and Dolly Blundell, he considered, carefully selecting pieces of coal, had been strange stablemates. Nell as rough and common as the milkman’s horse; Mrs Blundell softly spoken and ladylike – a filly with a bit of breeding. Yet the two became friends the day Nell moved into number 2, and remained friends in spite of Nell’s ways.
There was, he supposed, no accounting for taste, and not for anything would he give voice to his opinions. After all, Nell washed his Sunday shirt every fortnight without asking for payment and he, in turn, swept Nell’s doorstep every week, and the cobbles outside; Mrs Blundell’s too, since she’d been responsible, till she got badly, for the ironing. He also took it upon himself to keep the yard tidy and free from tomcats. That, he considered, was his duty done and his shirt dues paid.
Through the open door of the coalhouse he heard the door of number 2 being closed, then shrugged and walked to his house with the few lumps of coal that must last until he went to bed. The sooner it was used, the sooner he went to his bed. It was as simple as that.
Only when heavy black curtains had shut out the April night; only when she had slowly sipped saccharin-sweet cocoa and painstakingly washed and dried the cup, did Meg break the seal of the package.
She found only papers and let her breath go with relief. Papers relating to her mother’s indentures, set up and signed when young Dorothy Blundell first went to work at Candlefold? Or maybe papers concerning Ma’s childhood?
But domestic servants were not apprenticed, and why should Ma’s parents give her a bundle of documents when all they had wanted was to be rid of her? Meg focused her eyes reluctantly on the flowing handwriting.
THIS CONVEYANCE is made the 1st day of October one thousand nine hundred and twenty-two BETWEEN CANDLEFOLD ESTATES NETHER BARTON IN THE COUNTY OF LANCASTER (hereinafter called ‘the Vendor’) and DOROTHY BLUNDELL SPINSTER DOMICILED AT CANDLEFOLD HALL NETHER BARTON IN THE COUNTY OF LANCASTER (hereinafter called ‘the Purchaser’).
THE VENDOR is seized of the property hereinafter described and has agreed to sell the same to the Purchaser for the price of one shilling (12d) and that the said property shall be vested in the Purchaser …
‘Oh, my Gawd!’ Breathless almost, Meg read on. It looked like Ma had bought this house from the people at Candlefold for a shilling! But who in his right mind sold a house – even a slum like this – for a bob! More charity! Ma had been given a place to live – damn near given, mind you – just five weeks after the birth of her child at Candlefold Hall!
Dry-mouthed, Meg made for the door and Nell, then stopped in her tracks. No! Nell must not know. No one must know yet! Before she said a word to anyone, those pompous words must be read and read again, so there could be no mistaking that the house belonged to Ma, and if what was in that package really meant what she thought it did, then her search for a rent book was over an’ all, because people who own a house don’t pay rent.
The rent, Ma always said, had been taken care of. And so it had, but by the charity of John Kenworthy, Landowner, whose signature appeared with Ma’s at the end of the document. And now, Meg thought incredulously, it would seem that this house was truly hers; willed to her by her mother. Meg Blundell’s house! No landlord to pay six weeks’ arrears to; no bailiff to throw her out!
The fingers on the mantel clock, the only really decent thing Ma had owned, pointed to five minutes to midnight before Meg had read and read again the conveyance and deeds; dry, legal phrases so difficult to make sense of. Yet even so, one thing stood out clearly from all the gobbledegook: 1 Tippet’s Yard had been sold to her mother for a shilling before she left Candlefold. And, far from throwing her onto the street, the gentleman she worked for had allowed her to remain there to have her baby, then put a roof over her head! It was queer, to say the least, and Meg wanted to know why, because nobody, not even people as decent as Ma made out the Kenworthys to be, gave away a house. Not without good reason.
Then all at once the curiosity, the disbelief and anger gave way to tears, and they flowed hot and unhindered down her cheeks.
‘Oh, Ma,’ she whispered. ‘Why didn’t you think to tell me? Couldn’t you, before you went out into the freezin’ cold and sat down outside the lavvies to die, have told me just who I am?’
They left the Rialto when the floor began to get crowded and the dance hall too warm for comfort.
‘You’re a smashing dancer.’ Meg laced her little finger with Kip’s as they walked. ‘I can do fancy footwork with you better’n any other bloke.’
‘That’s because we fit, kind of.’ He didn’t like to think of her dancing with other men. ‘You and me get on well in most things.’
‘Mm. And oh, wouldn’t you know!’ They arrived at the fish and chip shop to read, with dismay, the notice: ‘SORRY. NO FAT. OPEN FRIDAY.’
She should have expected it! Chippies ran out of fat all the time, because fat was severely rationed; shops ran out of lipsticks and face creams too. Hardware shops ran out of mops, brushes, floor polish and paint all the time, and wallpaper had ceased to exist long ago!
‘Never mind – will this make up for it?’ He tilted her chin and kissed her gently.
‘No!’ she teased.
‘Then maybe another …?’ He folded her in his arms, this time with lips more demanding, and because she liked him and had had a lovely time dancing with him, she returned his kisses with warmth.
‘I’m going to miss you, Kip.’ She pulled away from him.
‘And I’ll miss you, sweetheart; more’n you think. Be my girl, Meg? I love you a lot …’
‘Kip, I love you too, but you wouldn’t want me to be your steady, would you? What I mean is –’ she took a deep breath – ‘you’re the nicest man I know, but I’m not ready for courtin’ seriously; not just yet.’
‘So there’s some other bloke you fancy?’
‘No! There’s no one! But I don’t want to be tied to a promise just yet. I still haven’t got myself straight over Ma. There’s a lot of things to be sorted – mostly to do with money.’
‘But I could make you an allotment out of my pay and the shipping line would send it to you every month. You’d never go short – if we were married, I mean.’
Oh, my Lor’! Here was Kip proposing marriage, near as dammit, and her not ready for it! Not by a long chalk she wasn’t! Just to think of it made her insides churn, because Nell had put her finger on it only last night! Men were out for one thing, so it was best they wed you first! And the trouble was that she wasn’t ready for that sort of thing, because that was how babies happened and she didn’t love Kip enough to have his child; not when you had to do that to get one! Kip was nice and kind, good to dance with and to kiss, but her and him in a double bed making babies was another matter altogether!
‘Don’t look so shocked! I’m not askin’ you to marry me – not just yet. But I’d like you at least to think about it. Tell you what – why don’t I look out for a ring? I know you can’t get engagement rings here any more, but I’ve seen plenty in Sydney. Can’t we give it a try, Meg?’
His words were soft and urgent, his eyes tender, and she came near to hating herself when she said, ‘Kip – I’m nineteen. I don’t know my own mind yet, except that you’re one of my best friends and I like being with you. But it wouldn’t be fair if I made a promise I wasn’t sure I could keep. Don’t go spending your money on a ring – not just yet? Give me time?’
‘OK. If that’s the way you want it, I’ll have to take no for an answer. But I’ll buy a ring, no matter what, and every time I come ashore I shall ask you to wear it – so be warned!’
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