Authors: Leah Fleming
The War Widows
For Jan, Madeleine, Menna, Lyneth, April, Kathryn and all the Lichfield Register friends, past and present.
‘We have eaten bread and salt together, sorrows and joys shared…’
Her big day was here at last, after all those years of daydreaming how it would be. The bride opened one eye and peered over her bedroom. It felt as if she’d been courting sleep all night and not a wink in her direction. But what sort of girl slept like a top on the eve of her wedding anyway? Except hers was the wakefulness of the wary, not the excitement of a nervous bride.
‘Bless the Bride’ was the popular song that went round and round in her head like a needle stuck on a gramophone record.
Her eyes skimmed across the room to where the outfit was hanging on the back of the door; not the white slub satin, cut on the bias, with beaded sweetheart neck the family would expect, nor the fancy rig-out that Princess Elizabeth would be wearing to parade down the aisle of Westminster Abbey in November. The linen two-piece suit was sensible, fit for the simplicity of Zion Chapel and all the dos thereafter. It would get a lifetime of wear
and probably be cut down into cushion covers or a kiddy’s party dress one day. This was 1947, after all, and there were few coupons to lavish on new clothing when there was a home to furnish.
It was just that she didn’t feel like a new bride-or a shop-soiled one either-and pink was not really her normal shade, but it would brighten up a grey Division Street for the few minutes it was on show.
Her ensemble was a modest Grimbleton version of the New Look that was all the rage in Paris, with its tight-fitted jacket and full skirt to her calf.
A year ago, she would never have imagined herself wearing anything so daring.
A year ago, she hadn’t even known the women who’d sewn it up, embroidered the lapels and sorted her matching gloves, hat and shoes with such loving care.
A year ago, they would’ve been just strangers’ faces in a crowded street.
A year ago, she would have chosen Glacier Mint white or caramel cream, not rose pink. What a colour to put on Lily May Winstanley!
She sank back down onto the bed with a deep sigh, burying her head under the eiderdown, not ready to face the morning. Who would she be at the end of this momentous day?
One thing was for certain. She owed everything to the bunch of dolly mixtures chance had thrown her way last November. Their arrival had turned her world upside down. Where would she be now without her Olive Oil sisters? What must she do next? How had it all begun?
It was a normal Monday washday rush at 22 Division Street, Grimbleton. First there was a mound of coloureds and whites to be sorted out, young Neville Winstanley’s silk blouses and knitted jumpers separated for hand washing, a pail of his soaking pants to be scrubbed, last week’s overalls from the market stall and Levi’s boiler suit left until last.
Polly Isherwood, the daily help, came in early to watch the setting-up of the new Acme Electric Agitator enthroned in the outside shed. Esme Winstanley came down in her tweed dressing gown to inspect the whole procedure. She still couldn’t believe a machine could do a week’s washing without shredding seams or blowing up the whole building.
‘If that thing tears all our smalls, don’t come asking me for coupons, Lil,’ she snapped at her daughter, never at her best first thing. ‘It’s the slippery slope to idleness in the home, relying on machines to do your dirty work.
I don’t trust those paddles. Whose big idea was this? Someone’d better stand over it, just in case.’
‘I’d have thought you of all women would be glad to see the back of all that slavery in the scullery, pounding dolly tubs and winding up the mangle. What’s wrong with a bit of help in the home?’ Lily argued back.
Mother was always preaching how women were the backbone of this country and had kept the Home Front going in two world wars. She had marched the streets in her Suffragette colours in her youth, on fire with indignation at not getting the Vote. Middle age was softening her militant ideas.
There was no time for anyone to be standing around like a statue with three generations in one house. The Winstanleys were lucky enough to be the first in the street to own this labour-saving device and Lily, for one, thought it was a godsend.
‘I’ve no time to stand and watch over it,’ she said. ‘Polly’ll be around for the morning. She’ll keep her eye on it with the handwritten instruction sheet stuck on the wall, and she can slip a few of her own things in the washer.’
‘All that electric it’s using up-what if the power goes off and all our week’s wash is trapped in the drum? Your father would turn in his grave…’ Esme snorted back, wanting the last word on the matter.
‘Don’t start all that again. Dad was all for progress. He’d be pleased no one has to rise before dawn to heat the copper boiler. We’re living in the modern age now. I don’t know why you’re getting so worked up.
Business is doing nicely; we’ve never missed an electric bill yet.’
‘When you’re a married woman with a home of your own you’ll worry about bills and lights left on. We’ve spoiled the lot of you, giving you driving lessons, a van and a fancy education. Now you’ve all got ideas above your station.’
There was no arguing with Esme when she had got her Monday mood fired up.
‘Oh, Mother! I’m duly grateful so let me get on with my breakfast or I’ll be late for work! There’s many round here who’d give their false teeth for an Acme.’
‘Lily, that’s very cruel. You know I can’t stand for long without my hip giving me jip.’
‘All the more reason to let Polly get on with her job then. That’s what we pay her for.’
‘I suppose so, but it doesn’t feel right to be standing around like Lady Muck, giving orders. It’s the thin end of the wedge. Vacuums, irons…it’ll be refrigerators next. It wasn’t like this in my day,’ Esme sighed.
‘Lil’s right for once. We’re the envy of the street for having a washing machine,’ said Lily’s sister-in-law, Ivy, from the doorway, carrying yet another armful of her little son’s clothing.
She was wearing her glamorous pink quilted dressing gown, which puffed out like a satin eiderdown. The effect was spoiled by a line of steel waving clips in her hair, making her look like one of Flash Gordon’s robots.
‘While I remember, Lil,’ she added. ‘Remind my husband to fetch some butterscotch sweets back from the Market Hall. Callard and Bowser’s, the best, not
that cheap stuff from the corner shop, and a quarter of dolly mixtures for the little laddie. No use me asking Levi, he’ll only forget.’
‘Neville’ll choke on them,’ sniffed Esme, who disapproved of all the sweet bribery dished out to her grandson.
‘Never! He can pick them over while he’s on the potty. It helps him concentrate.’
‘You spoil that bairn. All my children were clean and dry by the time they could walk, none of this pandering to whims and fancies. I’ve seen that little monkey sitting until his bottom has a rim round it and then you dress him up like a doll and off he goes in a corner to relieve himself. He needs a smacked bottom, not dolly mixtures.’
‘I know,’ Ivy simpered, ‘but we do things differently now. Oh, and, Lil, grab me something from the lending library while you’re passing. Something lighter than the last rubbish you brought me. What would I be doing with
War and Peace?.
We’ve seen enough of war in this house.’
‘What did your last slave die of?’ Lily muttered under her breath. What was the point? Since Levi’s return from the war, she’d slipped down the pecking order at number 22. Still single and the daughter of the house, she was at everyone’s beck and call.
‘Lily’ll open the shop this morning and do a stock-take so Levi can have a lie-in. She won’t have time to be doing your errands, young lady,’ replied Esme, coming to her daughter’s rescue for once. ‘He made a right racket last night tripping on the steps, and I
thought to hear such language on my stair carpet.’
At last, some welcome support, but it was short-lived.
‘But while you’re there, can you try and get me the latest Nevil Shute novel or another
But not the first two-I’ve read them. I’d go myself but it’s the Women’s Bright Hour committee, followed by a speaker from Crompton’s Biscuits this afternoon. I’ll be giving the vote of thanks, of course, seeing how Crompton’s is a family business, so to speak. How’s Levi, still in the land of Nod?’
‘Sleeping it off, so Lil’ll have to take the bus this morning,’ Ivy replied. ‘He’ll be needing the van. They made a bit of a night of it at the Legion, an Armistice night lock-in. Beats me how they get the booze, with all the rationing, but parading is thirsty work. You know how it is when the lads get together. Well, no, you wouldn’t, Lily. Walter never made it to the Forces, did he?’
Why did the woman always have to rub in the fact that her fiancé, Walter, failed his medical?
‘He’ll need a stomach liner for his breakfast, then,’ Esme added.
Bang went all their bacon rashers for the week again. Levi’s nights out at the Legion were getting to be a habit, leaving his sister to open up and set the stall in order. Not that she minded back when the war was on. She was proud to be holding the fort while the men were away, but now he was back he was happy to play at being the manager while she did all the work. It wasn’t fair.
Esme had seen the pout, the flash of steel in Lily’s
grey eyes. ‘Now don’t begrudge your brother a bit of extra, Lily. We’re lucky to have our boys in one piece when there are so many families still in mourning. Being a prisoner of war took it out of him. He was nothing but skin and bone when he came home. You had it easy, my girl.’
But that was two years ago. It was Freddie who was still out in the Middle East doing his duty. There’d not been a letter this week. Perhaps that meant he was being shipped home for Christmas, as they’d promised. She couldn’t wait to see him again.
Levi had milked his hero’s return for all it was worth, though his limp and scraggy bones were long gone. Time to make a fuss of her little brother, who had been on active service since 1940.
Freddie wouldn’t recognise his big brother. He was not the lad who marched away all those years ago; the ace outside half who once had a trial for Grimbleton’s professional football club, the lynx who could shin up and down an apple tree faster than any of the boys in the street, who used to have a spring in his step when he swung the girls around the Palais de Danse in a quick step. Levi had gone to seed.