Lamb Holm Whispers

12 Feb

Alberto walked across the island to the chapel and went in.

‘Alberto’

He looked around.

‘Alberto?’

He looked around again but could see no one.

‘Alberto, over here, come and see.’

He followed the direction of the voice and found Luigi, kneeling in the Sanctuary, gazing up at Our Lady, smiling down from the ceiling.

‘It’s finished.’

Alberto fell to his knees to thank God for the miracle. Was the miracle the ceiling or that he was kneeling next to Luigi?

Alberto and Luigi were both serving with the Italian Tenth Army in North Africa when they were captured and brought to Lamb Holm.

Lamb Holm, a small lonely island in Orkney. The surrounding sea, dark, hostile and menacing, whipped up by the ever threatening storm. The spray, biting and salty. Bitter and bleak, the surf breaking on the shores of Scapa Flow and the rusty frames of the blockships, obstructing the narrows, made this a miserable place to be. It was the perfect location for a prisoner of war camp. The Italians, captured during World War II, were brought to this desolate isle and set to build the Churchill Barriers.

Camp 60. In 1943, the camp commandant and the camp’s priest agreed that a place of worship was required. Two Nissen huts were joined together and formed a makeshift chapel.

It was constructed with whatever materials they could lay their hands on. Domenico Chiocchetti painted the sanctuary end of the chapel, his fellow prisoners decorated the entire interior.

Alberto and Luigi often came to the unfinished chapel and not wanting to disturb the angels they spoke in whispers.

Luigi: ‘How I wish it all to be over and we can go home.’

Alberto wasn’t sure.

‘To what, Luigi?’

‘To Mamma, the food, the wine, to the sun and the warm sea.’

Alberto tried to interrupt. It was futile. Luigi was in full flight. He made his homeland sound like heaven. Alberto didn’t feel he had left heaven when he was sent to North Africa. Just left one hell hole to end up in a worse one. But here, in Orkney, it was all over peace. He could live with the cold.

He didn’t pass these thoughts to Luigi. No point. He hoped when Luigi returned home, he would be made welcome. He hoped he would sit in the sun, eating pasta cooked by his madre and everything would be how he imagined.

Alberto tried to engage Luigi in conversation about the war and how lucky they were to be out of it. But Luigi was having none of it, and so it was back to the sun and the sea and the food and the wine and Mamma.

And always they had to return to their work.

At the weekends it was the chapel. It was surprising how accomplished they had both become, how they had all become, under the direction of a master. Alberto would never have believed himself to be capable of such artistry. Such creativity. Domenico stressed that imagination knows no limits.

Luigi sang as he created. He sang as loud as he could. He would sing for Mamma when he got home. His voice echoed from every corner and rebounded into the chapel. Alberto and the others, applauded the songs they all knew so well. O Sole Mio and Sorrento. Sorrento always left someone crying and they all cheered and joined in Funiculì, Funiculà.

How Luigi and Alberto had come together they could not remember but they had become friends, comrades. Comrades as different as they could possibly be. Comrades, tolerant and strong.

A comradeship that would end suddenly and dramatically.

For some reason, no one ever knew why, Luigi left the hut, where they slept, in the middle of the night. He passed the guard, unseen, and into the dark. With arms outstretched and singing, he walked into the sea. His body was found the next morning, He had been battered against the rocks and was hardly identifiable. Alberto was stunned. Stunned, shocked and distressed. His friend had given no indication he was so unhappy. They were prisoners, yes, but Luigi was always on about going home and how wonderful it would be. How he longed for home. The sun, the wine, Mamma.

Alberto reproached himself. He should have noticed something. Had his attitude to going home affected Luigi? Dashed his hopes of a happy return? Alberto wished he had kept his mouth shut but they had shared so many intimacies. It wasn’t Luigi’s fault that Alberto didn’t have an adoring Mamma who wanted to cook his favourite food, who wanted to love him and welcome him home from the war with open arms. He wept, wept for Luigi and for himself.

Alberto went into the chapel often after that. He prayed for Luigi’s tortured soul and prayed for his own forgiveness. If only he could tell Luigi he was sorry.

And so it was a miracle that he was kneeling next to Luigi now.

He didn’t have to ask. Luigi spoke first.

‘Alberto, you must not scold yourself. I am happy and with Mamma. She called me that night, she wanted me to sing and I went to her. Now we sing all the time. We eat pasta and drink wine and the sea is never cold.’

Alberto began to cry. Large tears, loud sobs.

And then a voice from nowhere. The voice of a child.

‘I heard them Daddy, there were voices, voices and sobbing. I heard them.’

Walking with Ghosts

21 Dec

‘Oh no, he’s coming over.’

He’d been watching her for quite some time. Their eyes met when they passed each other in the alley. Something drew her gaze to him and then he was gone. Lost in the crowds. But now he was here, on the square, watching her.

‘Deep breaths.’

‘Ms Foster? This way please.’ He spoke quietly. ‘I am your guide for the evening.’

Now she felt silly, embarrassed, as if he knew what she had been thinking. That he was a crank, a pervert or worse.

Stupid woman.

Julie Foster assembled her group. All first year A-level students launched from childhood to adulthood in the space of a few weeks. She always arranged excursions during their first year. Activities designed to take them out of their comfort zone, an introduction to a world of society, traditions, entertainment and culture. Enrichment Activities she called them. Trips to art galleries, museums, theatres, criminal courts. And, for fun, a ghost walk. Always a ghost walk. And always a late one. A ghost walk in the dark.

The students saw this year as a breeze, a light wind in contrast to the gales of previous years, which blasted them to the big exam. Trips out and about? A doddle. To Julie it was evaluation, these jaunts were part of that. The ghost walk was just a bit of a laugh, but it gave her some satisfaction to hear the screams and cries when spooks materialised in dark corners, jumped out of doorways with bloody aprons and severed heads on the ends of spikes, screaming and moaning from house windows and doors banging in the wind. Knocked some of the cockiness out of them.

She smiled at the man and he smiled back.

He pointed to a passageway on the far side of the square, raised his red umbrella to distinguish him from the other guides and beckoned her to follow. Julie dropped in behind him, mustered her troops, who in turn, dropped in behind her. They weaved their way in and out of the crowds and soon they were off the piazza, towards the church with the golden spires.

Zigzagging their way down a narrow street, the cobbles glistened under the Christmas lights. Julie had to keep her eyes lowered in case she landed in a puddle. She had done these tours so many times and returned with wet feet. And now it had started to snow. Why hadn’t she put her boots on? The street narrowed even more. The buildings seemed to meet overhead and form a tunnel. No lights. Julie felt she should crouch in case she hit her head. The guide, identified as Henry, kept up the historical dialogue and strode ahead without looking behind. His feet were large, his steps long. He dressed the part. A cape draped from his wide shoulders and rippled as he stirred up the air around him. He wore a dark suit with a high buttoned waistcoat and underneath a starched white shirt. It crossed Julie’s mind that he must have felt most uncomfortable. The things people do for their art. She assumed he was a resting actor. His boots shone. Henry’s stature grew and filled the space ahead.

She could hear chattering from behind and was secretly delighted that the babble would soon turn into shrieks, first of fright and then of hysteria, probably around the next corner. She wished Henry would slow down.

They left the street and crossed over a bow bridge on the edge of the city. Henry came to a stop and turned around to face them. Julie was still at the front.

He addressed the gathering.

‘The Red Lion and Lollard’s Yard and Gallows to the front.’

The Gallows had a line of four nooses and from each one a hanging female. One looked dead, eyes bulging and tongue hanging out. The other three were still kicking.

‘Hell fire.’ Julie gasped, ‘A bit realistic.’

‘Prostitutes.’

That’s all Henry said.

‘Prostitutes.’

They moved on, through the cathedral close and up the slope towards the city walls. Walls twelve feet thick and built with flint and the sweat of peasants. Henry took an abrupt left turn and walked along the wall until they reached a sort of prison. Deep recesses burrowed into the wall, open to the elements, bars from top to bottom. The floors were lined with dirty, wet straw, the smell, terrible. A huge jailer was planted without, arms folded across his chest, whip tucked into his belt. He held a huge bunch of keys and stared ahead, unblinking. Julie thought he looked like a waxwork. She almost jumped out of her skin when he turned to face her, snarled, raised his arm, stretched it towards her and shook the keys angrily, in her face. Screams filled the air around her; she was pleased she wasn’t the only one petrified.

As they skirted past, the prisoners stretched their arms, torn and bleeding arms, through the bars, grabbing and wailing, pleading to be let out. She stepped away for fear of one of them catching the hem of her coat. A skinny, scabby, slavering dog bared its teeth, barked menacingly and ran off.

Henry turned back towards the city continuing his flow of information, hardly stopping for breath. Julie was amazed by what he knew. It was unlikely her students were making notes. Before they knew it they were in a muddy lane with hovels either side. They stopped outside a dingy dwelling. By now, Julie had completely lost her bearings. Henry told the tale of a young girl who fled from the country to find her lover who had moved to the city for work. She searched and searched for him without success. Julie glanced at the house; she could see a girl’s face at the upstairs window. A white, gaunt face with tears running down her cheeks, she was sobbing. Julie could hear the sobbing. Suddenly the door opened and out ran a man, carrying a large knife, dripping blood. He was howling like a wild animal. Julie thought she would pass out with fright.

Henry continued.

‘Thinking she had been forsaken and unaware that her lover had gone back to the country to find her, the girl sought comfort with another man and moved into this house to live with him.’

Henry gestured towards the dwelling.

‘Her lover returned to the city and found her here.’

Another gesture from Henry.

‘He was so distraught and driven by jealousy and rage. He stabbed them both to death, ran out of the house, down the lane and threw himself into the river where he drowned.’

Henry pointed, with his large hands, down the lane towards the river.

Oh my God, Julie’s mind was running riot, her heart was thumping fit to burst, she felt dizzy and wondered how her students were. Before she had time to turn around to check, Henry suddenly, and without warning, set off again. Julie, taken by surprise, leapt and quickened her pace to keep up. She wondered what surprises were awaiting them around the next corner and was grateful when she saw the lights on the trees in the square and the crowds milling around. She relaxed, glad it was all over.

This was the most terrifying walk she had ever taken the kids on and a new route to her. She must talk with the agency tomorrow, the kids are only sixteen. This was a bit over the top.

Henry raised his red umbrella again and they crossed to the clock tower where he had collected them a couple of hours before. As they approached Julie checked her party. They were jostling, pushing and shoving, some shuffling from foot to foot. Others, chatting. She was glad to see they were unperturbed. The clock in the tower must have stopped, it still said eight o’clock.

Henry lowered the brolly and Julie walked past him to her charges.

‘A big thank you to Henry, I think.’

She turned but he had gone.

A young man, dressed in jeans and a tee shirt bearing the unlikely slogan, ‘I ran the World’ approached them.

‘Ms Foster? My name is Dean, I am your guide for the evening.’

Paradise and Mr Sheen

6 Dec

Feet set apart, shoes shining, jeans neatly ironed, he was feeling confident. Ronnie drew himself up to his full five foot seven and squared up to the hole in the wall. He challenged it to give him the cash.

Only want £100.Only need £100. Come on!

Ronnie was eager to be on his way. Lola would be waiting.

Questions, questions. For God’s sake. Yes, I want it in English. Yes, I want cash only. No, I don’t want to top up my mobile. Mobile? What Mobile? No I don’t want another service. I want £100 quid. Come on!

The woman, immediately behind Ronnie was sighing. Heaving, sighing and tapping her foot. She was impatient, agitated. He could tell.

Well I’m impatient and agitated too.

He could see her reflection in the glass. A tart. She smelt of cheap and nasty perfume.

No right to be impatient and agitated and tapping if you’re a tart he thought. His urgency made him spiteful.

At last the £100 arrived, in five twenties.

Damn.

He could have done with a couple of fivers. Lola charges £45 and doesn’t give change. He grabbed the notes, swivelled as best he could in the confined space and gave the tart a dirty look.

Ronnie impatiently weaved his way in and out of the shoppers and at last left the main street. He knew a back way to Lola’s. Narrow streets, no more than alleys and less chance of being followed. Not that Muriel would follow him, or have him followed. She hadn’t got the savvy. Poor Muriel, dim as a Toc H Lamp. She looked the business when he met her thirty years ago but time had not been kind. She’d let herself go, not like him, always well turned out. He didn’t fancy her anymore and that was and end to it.

Mind, what she lacked in the bedroom she made up for in the kitchen. Good cook, good housekeeper, she’d been a good mother. But no, dim as a Toc H Lamp and clueless. She’ll back there now, getting ahead of herself with the hoovering and dusting, so tomorrow she can get ahead of herself with the washing and ironing. One day, she’ll disappear up her own arse.

Nearing Lola’s place and with a few minutes to spare Ronnie looked around furtively. A sudden sharp breeze, straight off the sea, caught his hair and ruffled it up from behind. It stood on end and for a second, made him look and feel slightly ridiculous. My god, he was aggravated. Straightening it with one hand, he grabbed the door handle with the other. It was sticky. He grimaced. The paintwork was peeling, the whole building was shabby and dilapidated but once inside, yes, inside, Ronnie was in heaven. He manoeuvred his way along a black corridor until his eyes became accustomed and he reached the stairway to paradise. Music beckoned him above and he placed his hand on the banister.

Christ, this is sticky as well. Some dirty bugger’s been here before me

He reached Lola’s room, took a deep breath, rubbed his tacky hands on his jeans, smoothed his hair, just in case, and knocked. His heart skipped a beat as Lola’s honeyed voice, responded, ‘Come in.’

Lola had been awaiting her next client. She’d just said goodbye to one of her regulars. Nice enough bloke but his palms were always clammy. She hoped it was sweat refusing to allow her thoughts to wander any further.

She needed to change. This next one preferred a Spanish theme.

She chose a strapless black dress which embraced her cleavage and stayed put, more by good luck than management. It was split to the thigh. She popped a red rose into the ravine between her breasts. Her dark hair was piled up and the locks that escaped the comb hung down over one shoulder. A lace mantilla kept it all in place. Lola planned to lower her dark eyes and remove the veil very slowly as he came through the door, drawing it across her face before letting it drop and then tap, tap, tap towards him to the beat of a flamenco guitar. She must remember to get another CD, she was sick of that one. Lola hoped he wouldn’t be too excited but she needed to get him in the mood quickly or he would still be at it when the alarm went off. She never offered extra time, not since he objected when she once refused to give him change.

How dare he? Her services were like the words in a book. Priceless.

Lola thought Ronnie an upstart. A neat, tidy little upstart. Pressed and polished and clean. Clean enough to make you sick. No clammy palms and no smell of sweat, not even after the bell tolled time. He would just smooth his hair, it had a tendency to stick up at the back as if the wind had caught it, put his jacket on and leave.

Lola gathered her thoughts and put them to the back of her mind. She awaited his knock. His supreme politeness made her as sick as his supreme cleanliness. She resisted shouting ‘Come in for god’s sake and let’s get this over with.’ When it came she breathed in deeply, lowered her tone and breathed, ‘Come in.’

At home.

He’s gone. At last. I thought he’d never stop preening and prancing about in front of that mirror’

Muriel hastily wound in the cord of the hoover and stashed it away, under the stairs.

That’ll do for today.

Muriel loved her home, had worked hard to get it nice. Beavering about from room to room, duster in one hand, dragging the hoover with the other, she resented sharing it.

She despised Ronnie. Married thirty years and had despised him after that many months. But, with a mortgage and a child, she was stuck with him.

Then he retired. He was constantly under her feet, in her face. Fussing, moving things about. Whining.

‘What do you want this for? What does this do? Do you need this?’ and when the bad weather came he complained that the washing, drying in the spare room, made the house smell like a Chinese laundry.

‘What exactly is a Chinese laundry?’ she wanted to ask.

‘Mrs Wishee Washee’ he would sneer, ‘Mrs Wishee Washee.’

The words which went through Muriel’s head, and the ones which came out of her mouth, were not the same. Eventually she stopped talking to him. Just the necessary words to shut him up. She just dusted and hoovered, washed and ironed and served his dinner up between twelve and one. He was very particular about dinner time.

Her loathing grew.

Just lately he’d taken to going out on a regular basis. He thought she hadn’t noticed the money leaving the bank.

Silly sod!

Muriel wondered, vaguely, where he went, but didn’t care. It gave her a free afternoon. An afternoon without his constant twitter, whinging, nit picking and nagging. An afternoon to do as she liked. So as soon as he left the house she changed into her sexiest underwear. Stockings and suspenders seemed to be out of fashion with the youngsters, but she liked them. Then her red dress, the slinky one she kept at the back of the wardrobe. It slid over her head, and flowed down her body. She loved the feel of the fabric against the places it touched; it made her feel sensual. A light spray of No 5, and with one last look in the mirror, Muriel flicked her hair, pouted scarlet and winked. Then grabbing her Mr Sheen and her feather duster she hastened next door, where she was giving Brian an hour or two.

The Phantom of Sandwood Bay

2 Dec

‘Hamish’

The voice came again.

‘Hamish’

He heard the voice often when he was little. It could have been the wind whispering through the scrub and the long grass but he knew it wasn’t. He gave the voice a name. It was The Other Hamish. The Other Hamish went away years ago. Now back, calling, beckoning.

‘Hamish, Hamish’

Hamish was a strapping young man A crofter, out in all weathers, digging and stacking peat, growing, harvesting, feeding. Feeding, him and his mother. Hardened to the harsh climate he rarely wore more than two layers. His jeans were held up by a piece of rope tied around his waist, one end hanging down, like a clamped umbilical waiting to drop off. He refused to wear a belt, maintaining that the rope may come in useful.

Hamish was brought up by his mother. His father, a fisherman, was lost at sea. His body, washed up at Sandwood Bay, was an hour’s walk from the cottage he shared with his wife, Morag, and their and young son. Morag, remote in her manner, always told him he was his father’s boy, loved by him beyond reason. She did her duty and the best she could.

‘He’d have been proud of you.’ she’d say.

Hamish took that as a sign of affection.

Hamish worked hard day after day. Digging, stacking, growing and harvesting, the piece of rope still holding his jeans up. Although he hardly remembered his father, he missed him. Hamish felt warm, when he thought of him. Warmth dredged up from the past? Hamish didn’t know, just knew he did.

One day, sitting on an upturned oil drum, eating his sandwiches, he was approached by a walker, looking for peace.

‘Plenty of peace here’ Hamish remarked, wiping his forehead with the back of his hand.

‘Yeah, nothing here but ghosts.’ the man said, ‘Just gliding and floating silently here and there.’

Hamish smiled.

The walker asked if there was somewhere he could stay for a while. Hamish directed him to the local guest house.

‘Mrs McFarlane will look after you.’

The walker, who introduced himself as Robbie Logan, was researching ghost stories for a book he was compiling. Each day he sought out Hamish and they shared the oil drum. Hamish would labour his way through his doorsteps; Robbie ate the lunch more delicately prepared by Mrs McFarlane. They got on.

Hamish didn’t know much about ghosts. His mother was down to earth and didn’t believe such rubbish; she passed her cynicism onto her son. But Hamish enjoyed Robbie’s stories, vaguely wondered where he got his information from and decided it was probably from the local bar. Robbie spent his evenings there, by the fire, recovering from one of Mrs McFarlane’s famous suppers.

Hamish laughed at the thought of the regulars winding Robbie up.

‘Won’t matter whether or no.’ Morag snarled, ‘It’s all nonsense. Don’t you be taking any notice.’

Hamish thought he sensed unease in her voice. But he continued to tell Morag Robbie’s stories and snippets and although it seemed she wasn’t listening, he knew she was.

Hamish looked forward to his lunches with Robbie, disappointed when the weather was poor and he didn’t turn up. Still, after a few of those days, Robbie had a bunch of stories to tell and their break would extend into the middle of the afternoon.

This particular day, Robbie was excited.

‘Have I got a yarn for you, Hamish. The phantom fisherman of Sandwood Bay.

Hamish listened, he hadn’t heard this one before.

‘The phantom fisherman of Sandwood, who drowned off the Cape and trawls the coast to the bay searching and crying out for his little boy. They say he had tied his son to him with a piece of rope.’

Morag refused to listen when Hamish began to relate the tale.

‘Told you before, it’s all nonsense.’

Hamish persisted. As the tale unfolded, realisation overcame him. He felt light headed and ran the track though the sandhills to the beach. There he saw his father walking out of the waves towards him, arms outstretched, an umbilical made of rope dangling from his waist.

‘Hamish’ he called and then again, louder this time, ‘Hamish.’

Ruby’s Day Out

15 Nov

RUBY’S day began as usual, lifted out of bed, washed, dressed and lowered into a chair where she sat all day until she was undressed, washed and lifted back. This was the routine since she suffered a stroke five years ago. A nice man fetches her The Daily Mirror and her television is switched on.

The nursing home, a long low bungalow, is set back from the main road. Ruby liked it well enough, just. Never a good mixer, she is happy to sit in her room and watch telly. Ruby loves the dancing on Saturday night with Bruce Forsyth. She has invited him for Christmas, she expects he’ll come.

This day was a bit different. Ruby received an invite to a wedding. She was delighted. A trip, up west. Will need something new to wear. Up west? up west? She must have been watching Eastenders.

She decided against inviting her daughter, Constance, along. She would be too busy anyway. Constance was always busy. Busy, busy, busy and full of it. Far too important to take a day off work. No, she invited Hyacinth. Hyacinth, Ruby’s friend from India, kind, caring, lovely and beautiful.

Hyacinth agreed to the trip and together they started to make plans. They would take the bus from Liverpool Street, get off at Tottenham Court Road and walk all the way down Oxford Street. They would stop on the way, several times, for coffee and by the time they reached Lyons Corner House she would have a new costume, shoes, handbag and gloves.

Constance came to see Ruby that evening, after work. She was very busy. Busy, busy, busy and couldn’t stop long. However, she was stopped in her tracks when Ruby told her of her plans.

‘What?’

She went in search of Hyacinth. Lovely, beautiful Hyacinth who was preparing Ruby’s medication.

‘What’s going on?

‘Ruby and I are off to London tomorrow.’ Hyacinth said.

‘But.’

Constance was speechless. It wasn’t like her, she was usually very vocal and unrestrained.

Seeing the look of Constance’s face, ‘I know, I know.’ said Hyacinth, ‘Don’t worry she will have forgotten by the morning.’

By now Constance had recovered herself. She wasn’t happy that Ruby had been sent the invitation in the first place. It was obvious she would not be able to go. Furthermore, Hyacinth should not have played along with her plans. Constance, busy, busy Constance, told her so in no uncertain manner.

Duly chastised, a crestfallen Hyacinth, lovely and beautiful, went about her business of sorting out Ruby’s medicine.

When Hyacinth arrived to undress, wash and lift her into bed Ruby was still talking about their day out. The wedding forgotten, the trip up west, not.

Next day Hyacinth, lovely and beautiful, came to wash and dress Ruby, lower her into her chair, and turn the telly on. And the nice man brought her Daily Mirror. She ate her toast, watched the news for a while and read her paper. The TV was still blinking away in the corner. Eventually, someone wheeled Ruby into the dining room for lunch. She hated this part of the day, sitting at the table with the silly old sods who dribbled, lurched and sometimes went to sleep before getting to the pudding. She couldn’t hold a conversation with any of them, didn’t try.

Dear God, get me back to the telly there maybe some sport on.

Constance was busy, busy, busy that evening and did not call in. No matter, Ruby had a go at the crossword and at seven o’clock in came Hyacinth, lovely and beautiful, and undressed, washed and lifted Ruby back to bed.

The next morning, following the washing and dressing performance Ruby went over the previous day’s events in her mind. The train was packed. She must remember that for the future and travel earlier. She was pleased with her new outfit.

That evening, Constance found a slot in her busy, busy, busy schedule, and came to visit. Ruby told her all about her day out. Constance played along this time. She was too tired to take up the cudgels. She looked in her mum’s wardrobe, admired an imaginary costume, commented on how the shoes and bag were a perfect match and asked,

‘Are you going to wear a hat?’

‘It’s in that box on top of the wardrobe.’

Constance didn’t even look up.

As weary as she was, she collected up Ruby’s washing. Constance couldn’t trust the home’s laundry. Constance couldn’t trust anyone. She wore herself out not trusting anyone.

Emptying the pockets in her mother’s favourite cardigan, Constance found half a packet of Spangles, a day return, from Norwich to Liverpool Street, and a receipt, for a hat from Selfridges, dated the previous day.

Teapots and Riffraff

10 Nov

BETTY tipped the contents of the teapot over his head before throwing it at the wall. For a split second neither of them moved. It was as if the film had ceased to roll, then, when the projector sprung back into action, so did Betty.

She ran up the stairs to the bedroom, grabbed her jacket and headed down to the front door hoping to make her escape before the credits went up and he realised it was all over.

Betty made it into the street, heart thumping, awaiting a hurl of abuse. Mercifully, nothing. She picked up some speed and the house disappeared as she rounded the corner. Then, another stroke of luck, a 73, which would drop her at her dad’s, was waiting at the bus stop.

She hopped on and threw herself into the seat behind the driver crouching against the window. She felt hidden and safe, at least for the next half hour. The conductor didn’t come for a ticket. Maybe he sensed her distress.

Betty thought about how things had been when she first met Ralph. He was tall, good looking and a sergeant in the Army. He had a presence, a confidence that made her feel secure. He was never stimulating company, talked about himself and his achievements a lot, and was not very exciting in bed. But nonetheless, he was dependable and protective without being obsessive.

Betty had been a great responsibility for Violet, her mother. Betty, a teenager out of control, uncontrollable. Violet was sure she would become pregnant to one of that rough lot who had moved out of the East End into those new houses over the bridge.

As soon as Violet could surrender Betty to another, she did. To Ralph, the son of one of her friends at the Women’s Institute. Ralph was reliable and not just after one thing, not like that lot over there. She would nod in the direction of the bridge. Betty smiled at the memory. If only her mother knew. However, her mother believed, marrying Ralph would save her daughter from becoming pregnant to one of that riffraff .

Ralph became a prisoner of the Japanese in 1943, leaving Betty alone in her own house with no chaperone, no curfew and no limits. It was as if someone had opened her cage door and gone away. She went wild. Sometimes with riffraff and sometimes not but always with people her mother desperately disapproved of. Betty’s reputation spread.

Violet was struggling to hold her head up in public and was starting to miss meetings at the WI. She prayed for Ralph a safe return, a rapid safe return. At this rate she was going to lose her flower arranging skills. Her husband didn’t seem to mind what people thought. Betty was just like him and Violet told him so.

Betty reached her dad’s just as he was showing Florence, his new lady friend, Violet died and left him in peace in 1953, how to change the oil in a car. This involved him lying on his back, under the kitchen table with screwdriver and bucket. Florence appeared interested and only slightly amused. She had grown used to Ernie and his strange little ways. Loved him for them.

Betty stood by the table, Ernie addressed her feet and legs, ‘You left him then? This time for good? I’ll just finish this and you can tell me all about it.’

Florence saw this as an opportunity to leave. It was never her intention to change the oil in a car.

‘I threw the teapot at him, dad.’

‘Well done, did it make contact?’

‘It did, with the wall.’

‘Never mind, a lick of paint will sort it. Want a cuppa now?’

They sat for a while, Betty and her dearest dad. They drank tea and chatted about nothing in particular. She chuckled when he told her he had taken Florence for a posh meal and asked for Chicken Frickarse for two.

‘What did Florence say?’

‘Nothing, she laughed along with the waiter.’

She envied his relationship with Florence.

It had never been like that with her and Ralph. Never had time to be like that.

She remembered going to the station to meet him when he was released in 1945. Encouraged by Violet, she put on her best dress and coat, made up her face and sprayed on the last of her Evening in Paris. Violet didn’t know she had got it from an American airman, along with the nylons. She was early and apprehensive. Betty knew this was the end of the life she had enjoyed. She tried to feel guilty but couldn’t. She stood looking at her feet which would not stay still. They wanted to run.

The train chugged in. Betty painted on a smile and looked for Ralph. She wondered how she would greet him. How should she greet him? After all he was her husband. Was she expected to run into his arms squealing how she had missed him? Could she play that game? So many questions; answered when she saw him. He was in the first carriage behind the engine and emerged through the smoke. It was only when he said her name she realised it was him.

‘Hello Betty, how are you?’

She just stared at him her scarlet smile turning into a gaping red hole. She tried to speak but couldn’t. If she hugged him he might break; she had no desire to kiss him.

‘What happened?’ And trying to catch her breath, quickly, ‘I am so sorry.’

They went home and tried to settle into something resembling a normal life. Betty played the caring wife while Ralph struggled to get better. In time his outward appearance restored, he reverted to something like his former self, talking about himself a lot but leaving a big gap where 1943-1945 should be. But now there was an edge to his behaviour, hostility in his conversation. Betty felt she was living on the rim of a volcano which was about to erupt. Eventually it did, several times, smouldering in between.

Ralph’s language was spiteful and cruel. His face transformed into a mask of hatred. He lashed out at her several times. She tried to understand, all the time knowing it couldn’t go on for ever but not knowing how it would end.

And now here she was, sitting in her dad’s kitchen drinking cups of tea.

‘What’ll I do dad?’

‘Go back, get your stuff and come home.’

Home had never been with Ralph. Betty and Ralph only ever had a house and now she was out of there and coming home. Home to someone who cherished her. Spoke to her with affection. No malice, no spite, just humour and love. Home to dad.

She finished her tea.

‘I won’t be long.’

‘I will be here.’

Betty caught the same bus back to the house she had shared with Ralph. No ticket. She jumped off just before the corner. As she turned into the street she saw an ambulance outside her house. She walked cautiously towards it. Surely Ralph hadn’t killed himself; Seppuku. He was always threatening to do so, telling her how brave the Japanese were in the face of defeat. Did he believe he was defeated? Did he feel dishonoured and beaten by a woman?

There was crowd at the gate. The police were leading Ralph away. She stood back, not wanting to be seen. And then she saw. A body lying on the path being covered with a sheet. Betty gasped as she recognised herself.

The Secret

29 Sep

HER tears made the ink run as they dropped on to the letter she was reading.

‘No.’

Lizzie whispered the word although there was no one else in the room.

‘No.’

There was no one else in the house. The house where the sisters had lived all their lives; the house they were all born in; the house with the outside lavatory and no bathroom; the little house where they had been so happy as children; the little house, in the little town by the sea.

Lizzie and Edith were twins. Twins, but not identical. In fact, they were so different in appearance that they could have had different fathers. Lizzie, as fair and blond as Edith was olive skinned and dark. But they had a strong connection, loving, trusting and intense. Despite their looks they were so rarely apart that people did not know which was which.

In 1919, the boys who had survived the Great War, returned home. And in August 1920 a ball was to be held in the Victory Hall. Musicians from neighbouring brass bands regrouped and formed a dance band. They were due to strike up at eight. Refreshments would be served in the Supper Room at ten thirty and ideally every lady should be escorted. Waiting to be invited to supper was both exciting and agonising.

Archie asked Lizzie up for the first dance and the next and the next. They shimmied and swirled, sashayed and strutted around the floor. He invited her to supper. She was in heaven. During supper they chatted and laughed and fell in love.

The following weeks flew by, summer faded into autumn and autumn soon became winter. The slump was as biting as the north wind. Archie left the shores of this country fit for heroes, on a boat from Liverpool. It was January 21st 1921; the date was etched into her brain. He headed for the New World promising to send for her. As a token of his love he gave Lizzie a brooch, a delicate stripe of gold with an opal tear drop. A tear drop to copy the ones Lizzie would cry for the rest of her life.

The weeks turned into months and the months into years. Lizzie thought her heart would break, thought she would die. Edith was her consolation. They took long, silent walks, hand in hand along the shore. She felt the warmth of Edith’s caring and the comfort of knowing that nothing would ever break their bond.

One glorious summer’s day Edwin Thompson and his cousin Toby invited the sisters to join them for a game of tennis. Lizzie was reluctant but Edith persuaded her and they met on the courts behind the Victory Hall. Lizzie remembered the night she met Archie there; she felt a strong sense of betrayal. Hadn’t she promised to wait for him?

Lizzie teamed with Edwin and played mixed doubles. They all arranged to meet for another game at the weekend. Lizzie expected to partner Toby this time but he got together with Edith. Afterwards, they went for tea. Edith and Toby went to the counter, leaving Lizzie and Edwin alone.

‘They seem to be getting along.’ Edwin said.

‘Mmm, yes.’ murmured Lizzie, conspiratorially.

Lizzie felt slightly, ever so slightly, envious. Wasn’t that like her and Archie in the beginning? Her envy turned to concern. Was Toby going to go away and forget Edith like Archie had forgotten her? In that moment, she began to feel resentment. Resentment towards Edith for being so happy; resentment towards Toby for his potential treachery and resentment towards Archie for his disloyalty and disregard.

Edith and Toby came back with the teas. Lizzie turned to Edwin, suddenly.

‘Do you take sugar?’

Edwin appeared bemused by her sudden attention. Until then she had appeared aloof.

‘Yes please, just one.’

From that moment Lizzie and Edwin became close. He was charming and courteous. They spent the rest of the summer playing tennis and having picnics. She accompanied him to the theatre and they sang together in the church choir. Edith and Toby sometimes joined them but Edwin preferred it when they were on their own.

Edwin was the local pharmacist and a member of the local Masonic Lodge and considered himself to have some standing in the community. Edith was thrilled when he asked her to be his partner at Ladies Night. He insisted on paying for her gown and they went together to choose it. He had wonderful taste and although she fancied the blue silk he thought the lavender suited her better and he was right. She looked beautiful. He brought her a collage of violets to wear on her shoulder. That evening he asked her to marry him.

The next day Lizzie told Edith.

‘How lovely, you said yes?’

‘I said he will have to speak to father.’

Father said, ‘Yes’ and so therefore, did Lizzie.

The wedding was as grand affair as their little town had seen. Lizzie hardly recognised any of the guests. Edwin assured her that they were the best people and due to his status in local society he was obliged to invite them.

Their honeymoon was brief and awful. She hated the intimacy. Edwin sensed her reticence and his attitude towards her quickly changed. Wasn’t she his wife, the woman who promised before God, to obey him?

Edwin bought a house in a nice area of the town. They had a son, Stanley. Stanley died of consumption when he was three. Lizzie thought she would never recover from the heartbreak nor the desolation she felt at losing the two men who had touched her life so briefly and whom she had loved so much. Edwin put Stanley’s death down to frailty, inherited from Lizzie’s family. She fell into despair, despair that stayed with her, despair she could not shake off. He constantly reminded her that she had married well and for that she should be grateful.

Edith’s liaison with Toby spluttered before finally fizzling out. He married someone else very soon and Edith remained in the little house. Lizzie and Edith saw each other as often as Edwin considered appropriate. Edith seemed not to notice the depth of Lizzie’s wretchedness. She was happy that Lizzie had forgotten Archie and settled for Edwin who would not take her dearest sister away. Edwin was Lizzie’s solace for a love lost. Edith was happy for her sister.

On September 17th 1947 Edwin died suddenly and on his own. Lizzie had been to choir practice and returned home to find him on the floor in the parlour. She felt nothing, only sorrow that he was lonely at the end; sympathy she would have felt for anyone. She had to step over him to reach the telephone.

After the funeral she settled down in Edwin’s house. She made some changes and her mood lifted. She was free to cry for Stanley and to think of Archie and wonder. She and Edith became closer, the bond ever tighter. No one to follow them, no one to mourn, they were content.

They reminisced, laughed and cried together, chatted about Edwin and his smug ways and speculated about Toby. Edith had had several liaisons during her life but they never amounted to anything. If anyone was crass enough to mention she had been left on the shelf she would retort, ‘Yes, but taken down and dusted off now and again!’ And then they would giggle like adolescents. Edith was happy just to be with Lizzie. They never talked of Archie.

Weeks before their ninetieth birthday, Edith became ill and the end came quickly. Lizzie didn’t leave her bedside and when the time came, Edith grabbed Lizzie’s wrist, her bony fingers gripping so tightly that her knuckles gleamed white. Her last words, before she went to the light, were, ‘Lizzie, I’m sorry.’

The day came when the little house went under the hammer and Lizzie had to clear it. She had decided to only take a few personal things, things that reminded her of those happy times when she and Edith were children and then she would lock the door, turn and walk away without a looking back.

She found the letter hidden in the lining of the lid of Edith’s jewellery box. It fell out when she was poking about amongst the rings and brooches.

The envelope was addressed to Miss Elizabeth Mackereth and it was postmarked from the USA in June 1921. It had turned brown over the years and Lizzie was afraid it would tear when she opened it. Folded inside were some American dollars and a note which read,

‘My Dearest Sweetheart,

May the fair winds of change carry you to me soon.

Yours forever

Archie’