Authors: Diney Costeloe
Raised voices again. Rita could hear them through the floor; her mother’s, a querulous wail, the man’s an angry roar. For a moment she lay still in bed, listening. She couldn’t hear what they were saying, but it was clear that they were arguing.
Rosie, her sister, was peacefully asleep at the other end of their shared single bed, the stray cat, Felix, curled against her. She never seemed to wake up however loud the shouting downstairs. Rita slid out from under the bedclothes and tip-toeing across the room, crept out onto the landing. Limpid green light from a street lamp shone through the small landing window, lighting the narrow staircase. A shaft of dull yellow light, shining through the half-open kitchen door, lit the cracked brown lino and cast shadows in the hall. The voices came from the kitchen, still loud, still angry. Rita crouched against the banister, her face pressed to its bars. From here she could actually hear some of what was being said.
‘…my children from me.’ Her mother’s voice.
‘…another man’s brats!’ His voice.
Rita shivered at the sound of his voice. Uncle Jimmy, Mum’s new friend. Then Mum began to cry, a pitiful wailing that echoed into the hall.
‘For Christ’s sake!’ His voice again. ‘Cut the caterwauling, woman… or I’ll leave right now.’
A chair crashed over, and the shaft of light broadened as the kitchen door was pushed wider. Rita dived back into her bedroom, making the door creak loudly. She leaped into bed, kicking a protesting Felix off the covers and pulling the sheet up over her head. She tried to calm her breathing so that it matched Rosie’s, the peaceful breathing of undisturbed sleep, but her heart was pounding, the blood hammering in her ears as she heard the heavy tread of feet on the stairs.
was coming up.
‘Rita! Was you out of bed?’ His voice was harsh. He had not put on the landing light, and as he reached the top stair, Felix materialized at his feet, almost tripping him over.
‘Bloody cat!’ snarled the man, aiming a kick at him, but Felix had already streaked downstairs.
Jimmy Randall paused on the landing, listening. All was quiet in the girls’ room. Softly he crossed to the half-open door and peered in, but it was too dark to see anything, and all he could hear was the steady breathing of two little girls asleep.
Must have been the damned cat, he thought. Don’t know why Mavis gives it houseroom, dirty stray. If it was my house…
It wasn’t. Not yet. But it would be, Jimmy was determined about that. A neat little house in Ship Street, a terrace of other neat little houses; well, not so neat most of them, unrepaired from the bombing, cracked windows, scarred paintwork, rubble in the tiny gardens, but basically sound enough. Jimmy wouldn’t mind doing a bit of repair work himself, provided the house was his at the end of it. His and Mavis’s, but not full of squalling kids. All he had to do was get his name on the rent book, then he’d be laughing.
Rita heard him close the door but lay quite still in case it was a trick, in case he was standing silently inside the room waiting to catch her out. It was a full two minutes before she allowed herself to open her eyes into the darkness of her room. She could see nothing. Straining her ears she heard his voice again, not so loud this time, and definitely downstairs.
For a while she lay in the dark, thinking about Uncle Jimmy. He had come into their lives about two months ago, visiting occasionally at first, smiling a lot, once bringing chocolate. It was for Mum really, but she’d let Rita and Rosie have one piece every day until it had gone. But Rita was afraid of him all the same. He had a loud voice and got cross easily.
Rita wasn’t used to having a man in her life. She hardly remembered her daddy. Mum said he had gone to the war and hadn’t come home. He had gone before Rosie was even born, fighting the Germans. Rita knew he had been in the air force, flying in a plane high over Germany, and that one night his plane hadn’t come back. There was a picture of her daddy in a silver-coloured frame on the kitchen shelf. He was wearing his uniform and smiling. Wherever you moved in the kitchen, his eyes followed you, so that wherever she sat, Rita knew he was smiling at her. She loved his face, his smile making crinkles round his eyes and his curly fair hair half-covered with his air force cap. Rosie had the same sort of hair, thick and fair, curling round her face. Rita’s own hair was like Mum’s, dark, thin and straight, and she always wished she had hair like Rosie’s… and Daddy’s.
Then, a while ago, the photo had disappeared.
‘Where’s Daddy?’ Rita demanded one morning when she sat down and noticed the photo had gone. ‘Where’s Daddy gone?’
Without looking up Mum said, ‘Oh, I took him down for now. I need to clean the frame.’
Daddy had not reappeared on the shelf, and Rita missed him. ‘I could clean the frame,’ she offered. ‘I’m good at cleaning.’
‘It’s being mended,’ explained her mother. ‘When I came to clean it I found it was broken, so I’ve took it to be mended.’
Rita didn’t ask again, but she somehow knew that the photo wasn’t coming back and that this had something to do with the arrival of Jimmy Randall.
Jimmy Randall had changed everything. He was often there when Rita and Rosie came home from school. Mum used to meet them at the school gate, but since Uncle Jimmy, as they were to call him, had become part of their lives, Mum was too busy, and it became Rita’s job to bring Rosie home safely.
‘You must hold her hand all the way,’ Mum said, ‘and come straight home.’
So every school day, except Thursdays, Rita took Rosie’s hand and crossing the street very carefully, walked them home; almost every day when they got home, Uncle Jimmy would already be in the kitchen with Mum.
On Thursdays Gran met them at the school gate and gave them tea. Sometimes she let them play in the park they passed on the way.
‘I don’t like Uncle Jimmy,’ Rita confided to her grandmother one Thursday when they were having tea. ‘He shouts. I dropped a cup yesterday, and he sent me upstairs with no tea. It didn’t even break, Gran. It’s not fair.’
Gran gave her a hug. ‘Never mind, love,’ she said. ‘Perhaps he won’t be around for long.’ But Lily didn’t like him either.
Lily Sharples was Mavis’s mother. A widow herself, she still lived in the small brick house in Hampton Road, where she had lived all her married life. It had been spared by the Luftwaffe, when others in the vicinity had been flattened, and despite further raids, Lily remained, stubbornly, in occupation.
‘It’s been my home for nigh on thirty years,’ Lily told Mavis, ‘and when I leave it’ll be feet first.’
Lily was worried about Mavis and her family. Mavis had been on her own for five years now, and Lily wasn’t surprised that she had found herself another man, it was only natural, and anyway, the girls needed a father. It was just that she wished that the man wasn’t Jimmy Randall. She could see why Rita was afraid of him. He wasn’t used to children and his temper was short. On one occasion, Lily had seen him slap Rita across the face. The child had run to her, burying her burning cheek against her grandmother, and, holding her close, Lily turned on him, saying, ‘There was no need for that!’
Jimmy glowered at her and snarled, ‘They need a bit of discipline. They’ve got to learn their place.’
‘This is their place,’ Lily had snapped. ‘It’s not yours!’ But Lily was increasingly afraid that it was going to be. She decided to speak to Mavis. ‘You know the girls are scared stiff of that Jimmy, don’t you?’ she said. ‘It’s not right that they should be afraid in their own home.’
‘What about me?’ complained Mavis. ‘I need someone. Now Don’s gone, have I got to stay on my own for the rest of my life?’
‘No, of course you ain’t,’ replied her mother, ‘but you do have to think about yer kids. If they’re scared of Jimmy, is he really the right bloke for you?’
‘It’s only ’cos he makes them do what they’re told,’ Mavis said defensively. ‘It’s only ’cos they ain’t used to having a dad around. They’ll get used to him. He’s just got a short temper, that’s all.’
‘He don’t love ’em,’ said Lily mildly.
‘Course he don’t,’ Mavis said. ‘They ain’t ’is. But he’ll look after them, same as he looks after me.’
‘Are you going to marry him?’
Mavis shrugged. ‘Don’t know. Maybe.’
Lily gave her daughter a long look and then said, ‘He stays here, don’t he? He sleeps here, when the girls is in the house. It ain’t decent, Mavis. Your dad wouldn’t ’ave stood for it.’
‘Things is different now, Mum,’ Mavis replied. ‘The war’s changed everything. Too many men didn’t come home. Jimmy did and I’m going to hang on to him.’
‘He ain’t even got a job,’ Lily pointed out. ‘How’s he going to look after you?’
‘He’s getting a job,’ answered Mavis. ‘He’s out looking for work now. He’s heard they’re looking for people on the building sites. His mate, Charlie, says he can get him a job where he works. You’ll see.’
The day after Rita had heard the row downstairs, she and Rosie went to school as usual. Uncle Jimmy had not been there at breakfast but poor Mum had a bruise on her face.
‘So silly of me,’ Mum had said when Rita had reached up and touched the bruise. ‘I turned round too quickly and bumped into the door. Silly Mummy!’
‘Silly Mummy,’ echoed Rosie, beaming at her. ‘
All day the raised voices rang in Rita’s ears. Uncle Jimmy shouting, Mum crying, the sound of the overturned chair. Rita thought of little else and was scolded for wool-gathering, but by the end of school she’d made up her mind what to do. She’d go and see Gran. She didn’t live far and there were no roads to cross; she would hold Rosie’s hand all the way.
When school was dismissed she collected Rosie from the yard and led her out of the gate, turning away from home. Rosie trotted happily along beside her. ‘Where are we going?’ she asked.
‘Round Gran’s,’ answered Rita, keeping a firm grip on her sister’s hand.
‘Oh goody,’ said Rosie. ‘Do you think she’ll give us our tea?’
‘Expect so,’ said Rita, and moments later they were knocking on Gran’s door.
When Gran opened the door she was surprised to see them. It wasn’t Thursday. ‘Hallo,’ she said. ‘What are you two doing here?’
‘We don’t want to go home,’ began Rita.
‘We want some tea!’ broke in Rosie, grabbing at her grandmother’s hand. ‘Can we have some tea, Gran?’
Lily opened a tin and gave them each a biscuit. Then she turned to Rita. ‘Now what’s all this about not going home? Course you must go home. Your poor mum will be wondering where you are.’
‘I don’t want to go home,’ repeated Rita. ‘Uncle Jimmy might be there.’
‘So what if he is?’ said Lily. ‘He’s Mum’s friend.’
‘They was fighting,’ Rita said. ‘Uncle Jimmy was shouting and Mum was crying, and I didn’t like it.’
Lily put her arms round the little girl. ‘No, I’m sure you didn’t, pet. But even so you have to go home, you know, or Mum’ll be very worried about you. Wait while I get my coat and I’ll come with you.’