Authors: Jennifer Robson
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #Sagas, #General
My sister, my friend, my inspiration.
What is our task? To make Britain a fit country for heroes to live in.
—David Lloyd George (November 1918)
y nature she wasn’t a solitary person, and yet Charlotte couldn’t help but relish
the peace and quiet that descended on the constituency office after her colleagues
had gone home. Even the ward councilor herself, Miss Rathbone, had departed after
extracting a promise that Charlotte not stay on too late. With nothing but the scratch
of her pen and the faint thrum of traffic outside to distract her, she’d made terrific
progress, first taking care of her filing, then some overdue correspondence. Now she
was making a fair copy of the notes she’d taken at the Women’s Industrial Council
meeting that afternoon. It was a dull task, but one that would only become less interesting
the longer she let it sit.
It had only been two months since her return to Liverpool, and already she was discouraged.
As tedious and unpleasant as nursing had been at times, at least she’d been able to
witness the difference her actions had made: wounds bandaged, burns salved, restless
She was good at her work here, for she’d been with Miss
Rathbone for three years before the start of the war, and even after a nearly five-year
break she’d fit right back in, picking up the reins of her duties as if she’d never
set them down. That was the problem.
Nothing had changed. Four years of limitless war, untold millions dead, millions more
left wounded, bereaved, desolate. And for what? Britannia was blind and deaf to the
suffering of her citizens—the men crippled by war wounds who were reduced to begging
on street corners, the widows with no work because returning soldiers were given what
few jobs there were, the children who went to bed hungry and were kept home from school
so they might help their mothers with piecework. It was all so very, very discouraging.
The voice from the hall was so startling that Charlotte all but jumped out of her
skin. She looked up and was relieved to see a solitary woman, her face somehow familiar,
standing at the door.
“I’m ever so sorry to bother you, miss, but there weren’t nobody out front . . .”
“There’s no need to apologize, I assure you. I was only a bit surprised. Do come in
and sit down.”
Try as she might, Charlotte couldn’t recall the name of her guest. The woman looked
poor but respectable, her coat shiny at the seams, her shoes polished though the soles
were likely worn through, her face wearied by worry and need. She might have been
any age from twenty-five to forty-five.
“I feel as if we’ve met,” Charlotte began, “but I’m afraid I can’t place your name.”
“Doris Miller. I met you the other week, when you was helping Miss Rathbone on her
“Yes, of course. I remember now. You spoke to the Pensions Committee about how hard
it’s been for you. I believe you lost both your husband and your eldest son?”
“Yes, miss. My husband was killed at Loos, and then Davey right at the end of it all,
at Messines last year. He was . . . he was only just eighteen.”
“Oh, Mrs. Miller. I am so very sorry for your loss.” The words were rote, but she
meant them all the same. To the bottom of her heart she did. “I recall that you haven’t
been able to find any steady work.”
“No, ma’am. The jobs are all going to the men. Fair’s fair, I suppose.” Mrs. Miller
looked down as she spoke, her eyes fixed on the sight of her toil-roughened, gloveless
hands, clasped so tightly together the tips of her fingers had gone white.
“May I ask, Mrs. Miller, if there’s any particular reason you came to see me tonight?”
“I told myself, on the way over, that you’d understand. You was ever so nice when
I talked at that meeting. You didn’t look down your nose like some others do.”
“Thank you. I will do my utmost to help you, Mrs. Miller, if help is what you need.
If that is why you’ve come to see me. But first you must tell me what is amiss.”
“I’ve had a letter. From my uncle, my mother’s brother. He lives in Belfast. He was
widowed last year. He’s asked if I might come and live with him, me and the children,
and take care of him. He’s had a fall or two and he don’t want no stranger coming
“Is he a man of means? Can he support all of you?”
“He was a welder at the shipyards, and he and my aunt never had no children of their
own. So I expect they was able to save a bit over the years.”
“Do you think him a decent man? Will he treat you and the children well?”
“He’s nice. Quiet. I think we’ll do well by him.”
“Are you asking if I think you ought to go?”
“It’s only that . . .” Mrs. Miller’s voice trailed off and she resumed her impassioned
hand twisting. And then the words came out in a torrent, so softly Charlotte had to
lean forward to hear them.
“They’s said there’s summat wrong with my papers, that’s why my pension hasn’t come
through, not for my husband, or for my son either. I’ve sent them everything I have,
I even had a copy made of my marriage certificate, but they wrote me back and said
it’s under review, or summat like that, and how am I to feed the children?
“The steamship fare to Belfast for all of us is nigh on five pounds. I’ve tried but
it’s too much. I sold all the furniture when things got bad a few months back. We’ve
only the one bed left, the table and a few chairs, and they won’t bring enough, not
hardly enough. They’s only fit for the rubbish. I sold my wedding ring last year.
We’ve the clothes on our backs and nowt else. I daren’t ask my uncle for it, else
he change his mind. Think twice, or worry we might make trouble for him. It’d only
be a loan, until we’re settled and I can take in washing or summat else. And I thought
. . . I hoped . . . I thought you or Miss Rathbone might know of somewhere I might
go . . .”
Charlotte knew exactly what she ought to do. By rights, she ought to send Mrs. Miller
to the offices of the Personal Service Society, the charity that Miss Rathbone had
recently founded for families in desperate straits. All she had to do was write down
the address on a scrap of paper, pass it to the woman, and send her off.
And yet she hesitated, for assistance from the PSS would involve a daunting amount
of form filling and question asking. Mrs. Miller might end up receiving the aid she
needed, but not without sacrificing what few scraps of self-respect she still possessed.
Charlotte had seen it before, more times than she could count, and she was heartily
sick of it.
“You were right to come here,” she stated in the firmest voice she could conjure.
“For I do know of a fund, a rather secret fund, you see, for war widows just like
yourself, and I feel quite certain that Miss Rathbone would agree if I advance you
the money to cover your fares to Belfast.”
Mrs. Miller went pale, and for a moment Charlotte thought the woman was going to faint,
but then she rallied and sat up even straighter than before.
“God bless you, Miss Brown—”
“Let me just fetch the ledger . . . yes, there it is.”
Charlotte pulled a spare notebook from the shelves behind her, and opened it to a
blank page. Using a pencil, she wrote down Mrs. Miller’s name, the amount of the loan,
and the date; she would erase it later. Then she opened the bottommost drawer of her
desk, dug into her bag, and extracted a five-pound note. It was a good thing she’d
been to the bank that morning.
“Do you have a handbag, Mrs. Miller? Or would you like an envelope?”
“Can I have an envelope?”
“Of course. Here is the money, and in return I shall ask for only one thing. When
you are settled, please find a way to let me know how you are getting on. Your eldest
daughter is still in school, is she not?”
“Yes, miss. I’d never of took her out of school.”
“Then she will certainly be able to write out a short letter and send it to me here.
Just so I know that you are all safe and sound.”
Charlotte tore a page from the notebook and wrote her name and the address of the
constituency office upon it. “Here is my direction. I am so pleased you came to me
today, Mrs. Miller. Miss Rathbone will be delighted to know we were able to help such
a deserving family.”
“God bless you, Miss Brown, and Miss Rathbone, too. I’ll never forget how good you’ve
been to me and my children.”
“You’re very kind. Now, tell me: how are you going to get home?”
“I’ll walk, same as I did to get here. Shouldn’t take more’n an hour to get back.”
Charlotte bent again to the open drawer and fished tuppence out of her purse. “If
I give this to you, will you promise to take the tram home tonight?”
“I couldn’t, honestly I couldn’t.”
“I insist. Now off you go to your children, and I wish you a very happy journey to
After seeing Mrs. Miller out the door, Charlotte returned to her desk and gathered
her things; she’d finish her notes in the morning. As she locked up and started off
down the street, she was buoyed along by a rare sense of elation, her spirits lighter
and brighter than they’d been for months. She’s wasn’t fool enough to think that five
pounds could solve the world’s problems, or even make a discernible dent in them,
but they would ensure a decent future for Mrs. Miller and her five surviving children.
Tomorrow she’d go to the bank and withdraw three pounds, enough to cover her room
and board for the month; fortunately
she had enough in reserve to tide her over until she was paid again. A few weeks without
a daily newspaper or any new books wouldn’t hurt her, and it would serve as a useful
reminder of how well off she was in comparison to most. She had enough to eat, she
had a warm bed to sleep in, and she had useful work that paid her well.
And if, alone in her narrow bed at night, so forlorn she could almost hear her soul
shriveling away, she were to wonder and worry why there wasn’t more to life . . .
well, that was human nature, wasn’t it? To want the impossible, though the sum of
her experiences proved that happiness was rare, elusive, and above all, ephemeral.