Chapter One: Meetings

Grace April 1940

There was something special about that morning. A crimson dawn was lighting up the day as I meandered along the byways to the farm. Birds rustled in the hedgerow, some fluttering across my path, while in the distance came the occasional call of a cuckoo.  A violet blanket of mist drifted above the furrows of the fields, as the emerging sun shimmered through a spider’s web beaded in dew. Silvery barrage balloons hovered above, a reminder of a war which seemed entirely remote. Stopping to admire the view across the rolling weald, I inhaled the nectar of an English country morning.  It was then I heard somebody whistling.  Along the path walked a man, head lowered, intent on his tune.  As he came alongside my cycle, the melody reached a crescendo. I couldn’t stop myself from exclaiming. “That was really lovely.”

I found myself looking into a pair of dancing, tawny eyes.  From out of a lean, tanned face a white smile flashed.  He raised his cap. “Thanks, your ladyship. ” Then he was gone, whistling on his way.

Just who was this handsome stranger?  Somehow, he looked familiar.  It was unusual these days to come across a young man who wasn’t in uniform. Those who hadn’t yet joined up were rather frowned upon. Perhaps he was a conscientious objector. How intriguing. 

The mystery was still on my mind when I visited the family home a week later.  As I made my way through the woods at the rear of the house, my sister, Tara, galloped past on her latest thoroughbred. I turned to watch her, at the same time passing through the gate so that I almost collided with Mabel, who was carrying the slop bucket to empty in the yard.  “Good morning,” I said. “Just the person I wanted to see. Here, let me give you a hand.” My friend was thin and wizened and looked as if her burden could bring her down.

“Nonsense, Miss Grace,” she protested.

“For goodness sake, give it to me and don’t call me Miss,” I hissed as I carried the bucket to the cesspit with her protesting in my wake. ‘The country’s at war – we’re all supposed to be pulling together. Remember?” I linked my arm through hers in defiance of the family code.  One was not supposed to fraternise with the servants, although I made a point of speaking to them all, much to my stepmother’s disapproval. She was particularly censorious of my friendship with Mabel, who had charred for us for over fifteen years.

As a child, I spent more time with Mabel than with my parents, who were often unapproachable and always busy. The charlady became one of the constant influences in my unsettled life;  through the years, she was always there to listen. Although she’d had little formal education, like me, she was an avid reader. We could discuss any subject on an equal basis – be it politics, religion, love. None of my family understood this relationship, as people of our class did not associate with members of the lower orders. Except for me of course. I experienced a wave of affection as I now regarded my friend’s worn features.

“It’s good to see you love. I’ve missed you since you moved out. But if your stepmother catches us, there’ll be hell to pay,” Mabel warned, giving my arm a little squeeze.

“She’s out, so we’re as safe as houses. Come on, let’s get some elevenses.”  I frog-marched her into the kitchen and made her sit down while I raided the well-stocked pantry. 

“My goodness, who’d of thought I’d have the gentry herself waiting on me?”  Mabel laughed as she sipped her coffee. 

“Stop that rubbish. You know better than most that we’re all equal.”

My friend’s eyes twinkled with wry amusement. “Tell that to my Stan,” she cackled. “He calls you her ladyship.”

“Why on earth would he say that?” I was perplexed. “He’s never even met me. Doesn’t he work away?”

“But he described you and all. Reckon it couldn’t have been anyone else.”  

As I looked into Mabel’s amber eyes, the penny dropped.  “Of course, how stupid can I get?” I laughed, recounting the details of my meeting with her son.

“It explains everything. I forgot you’d told me he’d come home. He’s got your eyes, you know.” I concluded. “ I must say, it was driving me mad. I’ve never been able to resist a mystery-“

“I know that, love,” she agreed. “I remember the time you met that Sherlock Holmes man -”

“Conan Doyle. Yes, indeed-friend of Dad’s.  Another spiritualist.” I rubbed my hands together gleefully.

“Then there was the time when you was in that school Drama Society, and wrote those terrifying plays.” Mabel grimaced.

“I always played the male lead, with my deep voice, I was perfect. After all it was a girl’s boarding school -” We both laughed at the memory.

“My goodness, what frightful pandemonium.” It was Dad, dressed in his plum-velvet smoking jacket.  Mabel’s laughter changed to chokes and she buried her face in a greying handkerchief.  Looking down, my father raised his hand and gingerly patted her shoulder. “There, there, Mrs Searle,” he comforted. “You obviously have a terrible cold so I’m sure a hot drink has done the world of good.”

“Oh yes, thank you sir.” Mabel leapt to her feet and set off about the

completion of her duties.  As I watched her depart, little was I to know that the next time I saw her it was to be in completely different circumstances. Or that it would be the cause of a terrible rift between myself and my family. As I linked arms with Dad, I would never have believed anything could come between us.

My father was a man of endless charm, who knew exactly the right thing to say to put anybody at their ease.  I realised how blessed I was, having inherited his joy for life, his sense of humour. I adored him. As we took our seats in the drawing room, I said as much, adding. “What bliss, I’ve got you all to myself for a moment. Such is the hardship of having a famous father. You’re becoming even more sought after now there’s a war on. ”

“You’re right my dear.  So many souls are turning to spiritualism in this turbulent era. I’m only thankful I’m able to do something to help, although, the new client list seems endless.”

“Well, I’m not surprised, the established church is so antiquated.  I get angry at the mere thought of the hostility it’s shown you Dad. Why, many of your patients consider you a saint.”

He patted my hand. “Now Grace, I’m a human being, just like you, with all the associated failings.”

Over the past two years, Dad’s fame as faith healer and medium had spread throughout the southern counties. We had closed the London quarters for the duration of the war and now he spent most of his time at the Healing Centre here in southern Kent.  I looked at his handsome face, framed beneath a shock of thick white hair.  I was so proud of him -  of his unusual occupation, which had been part of our lives since he had developed his powers as a trance medium twenty years ago.

As donations from wealthy patrons poured in, he established the Healing

Centre (a manor house and some three hundred acres) in 1925.  Many of the members came to reside at the House, which we ran as a hotel.  To keep up with demand, a number of new buildings had recently been erected, which was just as well as the House had been requisitioned by the RAF.

Although Dad rubbed shoulders with many members of the aristocracy, like me, he supported the Labour Party, much to my stepmother’s disgust. She considered there was a pre-ordained social standing for every individual and there they should remain. It was for this reason that he now gently scolded. “Speaking of human failings, you really must be more decorous, Grace.  If your mother had caught you in the kitchen with dear Mrs S, it would have caused terrific ructions.  The poor woman would probably have been sacked on the spot.”

“Dad. This isn’t Victorian Britain. And Mabel’s looking dreadfully tired-”

“There’s no doubt the poor soul has a hard and trying life,” my father agreed. “But it wouldn’t help her to lose her job, would it?”

“But why can’t Mother show a little more humanity to the servants?” Her attitude exasperated me.

“That’s enough Grace, I won’t have you criticising your stepmother. Not after all she’s done for you four children.” It was true.  A naïve parson’s daughter of twenty three, she had taken on the role of mother for all of us when she became my father’s second wife.

“I know, Dad. I just get so frustrated  Let’s change the subject.  How are you?” We spent the next half an hour in pleasant chit-chat before my stepmother’s  return. I watched her glide regally through the French windows, arms laden with spring flowers, face glowing. A striking figure, she had a Reubenesque build with generous hips and a full bosom. As she approached, she held out her petal smooth cheek for a kiss. I complied,  marvelling at her beauty.  At the age of forty-eight she still had the complexion of a young woman.   

Her lovely brown eyes scrutinised me from head to foot. Pursing her lips, she lifted a tendril of loose hair from the nape of my neck. “Really, dear.” She tutted. “I do so wish you’d take more care of your appearance.  Why don’t you have your hair cut?  Madeline has had a cold perm, quite the thing these days.  And so tidy.”  She floated past on her way to arrange her blooms. I  hung my head in humiliation. Dad, missing nothing as usual,  put a comforting arm about my shoulders.

“Your stepmother means no harm, dear. She just puts things a little bluntly, a typical Scorpio.  Now promise me you won’t get your hair cut. It’s your crowning glory.” So saying, he kissed me and departed to his study. 

I stood and looked into the oval Queen Anne mirror above the fireplace.  My vision was poor, even then, but I could clearly see the square outline of my face framed by my chestnut hair.  I was proud of my hair, which was thick and wavy. I could hide behind it if the occasion arose. “Cut it? Over my dead body.” I mouthed to my reflection. Feeling better,  I sat down in Dad’s favourite wing chair, picking up the newspaper.  It seemed only seconds later when I heard his voice.

“Wake up Sleeping Beauty,” he said.  “Time for lunch.”  He escorted me into the dining room, where the table was fully dressed; the crisp lace tablecloth was decorated with full silver service settings, including fine damask table-napkins wrapped in matching solid silver napkin rings.  The antique glasses twinkled in the pale mid-day sunlight beside the crystal decanters, which glowed ruby red. The porcelain serving dishes exuded such delicious aromas that my stomach rumbled in anticipation.

Tara rushed in from the stables at the last minute.  Watching my stepmother’s face as she welcomed her daughter, I couldn’t quell my feelings of resentment. Nine years my junior, my favoured half sister wanted for nothing.  I had twice been removed from different boarding schools, the money required for Tara’s education instead.  For this reason I had failed to complete my matriculation, and was unable to attend Oxford like two of my brothers. Then my nursing training was brought to an abrupt halt. It had transpired that the money was needed to buy Tara a new horse. Now a pupil at an exclusive girls’ boarding school, my sister was becoming a strident snob. 

I watched her lean back in her chair while Saunders served the soup, ignoring his very existence as she continued her frivolous prattle about a blasted gymkhana. ‘There’s a war on.’ I wanted to shout. ‘Who gives a damn about your ruddy horses?’

I held my tongue but my enjoyment was quite spoiled. Which was a shame because it was a splendid meal, cooked to perfection by Mrs Binns, one of the few staff who had come from the hotel, along with Saunders, who now doubled as chauffeur and butler. I paid little attention to the conversation until I overheard Mother complaining that it was difficult to get servants these days. “Even more reason to treat the ones you do have with a modicum of decency.” I muttered under my breath.

We adjourned to the drawing room for coffee. “That was a wonderful meal thank you Mother.” I complimented.  “One would never suspect food was rationed.” Seeing her angry flush, I realised that yet again, I’d said the wrong thing. 

“Well, I certainly didn’t buy it on the black market, if that’s what you’re inferring.” she snapped. “The local tradesmen attempt to cater for our needs.  Don’t forget, we provide a great deal of custom when the House is open.” As if I needed reminding!  Not so long ago, I’d regularly dealt with the tradesmen in my role of manageress of the House. Not that my stepmother had given me much credit for my hard work. Small wonder I’d been so eager to join the Land Army.

“Sorry Mother. Of course that’s not what I meant.  It was a lovely meal thank you.” I sat down on the couch next to my sixteen-year-old sister, who reached out and patted my midriff.

“Oh, Gracie-Wacie, what’s happened to your fat tummy?” 

I removed her hand from my stomach, replying with an icy smile. “Well, I’ll never be slim, like you Tara.  I have big bones.” I was surprised when my stepmother intervened on my account. 

“Actually, I was just thinking how trim your figure has become.  All that outdoor work must be agreeing with you.” 

I mumbled my thanks. “Of course,” she continued. “You’ll never be slim with your build, but you are looking well.  If only you would do something with your hair.” 

“Now, now Bella.” My father couldn’t abide discord.  “I was just telling Grace her hair is her crowning glory.  It would be a crime if she got it cut.”

“Hear, hear.” Chorused my sister. “I won’t get mine cut either.”  She rose to her feet and with one graceful arc of her hand, released her golden mane, which tumbled down her back like a shank of silken thread.  I studied her perfect profile.  She had inherited her mother’s classic bone structure and our father’s mesmeric sapphire eyes.  She was stunning and she knew it. She was also well aware that, with that one gesture, she had relegated me to my customary place of ugly sister. It wasn’t long before I made my apologies and took my leave. 

I decided to walk off my discontent. Luckily, I’ve never been able to sustain ill feeling for long, especially not on such a fine spring day as this. The bluebells formed an azure sea beneath the trees, flooding my senses with their sublime scent.  As I followed the springy path that skirted the lip of the sandpit, I could hear the sound of spade hitting stone. Somebody working on a Sunday?

“Curiosity killed the cat, Grace.” I chanted Nanny Grey’s favourite euphemism while straying from the path to locate the source of the noise.  Balancing myself on a ledge, I peered downwards.  It must have been a forty foot drop, but the first thing that caught my eye was the sun glinting on a shovel as its owner went about his work.  His body rose and fell rhythmically as blade hit earth, a motion as fluid as running water. I took in the width of his shoulders, the ripple of muscle beneath his short-sleeved shirt.  His arms were brown and strong, body perfectly proportioned.  I was sure it was Mabel’s son. In moving forward, I loosened a stone from beneath the ledge where I was poised.  I cursed, flailing my arms before sliding two or three feet and coming to a halt in a patch of brambles.  Below me he turned to look up, his mouth forming an “O” of surprise.

“Bloody hell.” He shouted. “What do you think you’re doing? Trying to get yourself or me killed?”

“I am attempting neither suicide nor homicide.  As a matter of fact, I merely slipped on my way past.”

He pushed his cap onto the back of his head and wiped his brow.  “My Gawd. I don’t believe it. Your ladyship” He took a bow. “I reckon you’re as loony as your old man.”  His mocking laughter echoed around the crater. In a vain attempt to maintain some dignity, I endeavoured to shuffle backwards on my ample posterior.  The laughter from below grew louder.  Although quite shaken, I  wasn’t about to ask such a horrible man to come to my aid. Clenching my teeth, I grabbed hold of the bramble behind me. Luckily, another afternoon stroller, old Lord Sommers, had heard the racket and poked his head through the bracken, to discover me making a final backward lunge.  He extended his walking stick and with our combined effort, I righted myself and made it back onto the path.  I brushed dead leaves from my clothes and returned to my flat to bathe my hands, all the while  wondering how a gentle creature like Mabel could have given birth to such an unpleasant individual.  But after retiring, it wasn’t the threat of air raids that  kept me awake.  It was the motion of strong brown arms and the chink of the blade on flint that preyed on my mind.

That very night we had our first experience of German bombs.  Although targeting the nearby aerodrome,  a stray bomb had landed in the woods a mere two miles from the House.  Fortunately, no one was injured.  Many of us were huddled around the smoking crater the next evening.  Blackened tree roots protruded from the pit like bony hands reaching up in supplication. A shiver ran down my spine, a presentiment of the unspeakable things this war would bring.  I thought of the people already putting their lives at risk, like my brother Bruce, who was training as a Spitfire pilot. And I thought of that taunting voice echoing up from the very bowels of the earth.  Wondering how he had managed to avoid doing his duty for his country, I vowed to have nothing more to do with Mabel’s son.

Apart from the bombing, life continued without further incident until my next Sunday’s leave, when I popped into the Cottage.  Making my way around Mrs Binns, I noticed the kitchen floor felt sticky.  “My goodness,” I exclaimed. “This floor’s filthy. Mabel won’t be happy when she sees it. What’s happened?”

“You may well ask, Miss,” was the haughty reply. “We’ve not cast eyes on her for three days.  No word, nothing. Madame’s fit to be tied.”

My stomach churned.  Something must be terribly wrong.  Mabel was as reliable as clockwork. I rushed outside to find my stepmother,  who was at her favourite occupation, tending the flowerbeds. It was a warm day for April and she was wearing one of her floppy straw gardening hats.  There was a smudge of soil on her left cheek. 

“For goodness sake Grace, what on earth’s the matter? Bad news?”

“Oh Mother.  No. It’s nothing to do with the war. But I’m really worried. Mabel would never miss a day’s work, let alone three, unless there was something terribly wrong.”  I stopped for breath.

“Really Grace, all these hysterics about a charlady.  Calm yourself.  You gave me a fright.”  Her eyes were cold. I began to apologise for alarming her but she cut me off. “Anyway, as no one has even had the decency to contact us concerning Mabel’s absence, I’ve arranged to interview Mrs Black’s daughter next week.”

I couldn’t believe it. I was so furious, I swear I saw red. Having never before openly cheeked my stepmother,  I was now unable to contain myself. “Mother. How could you? You know Mabel is reliable. She’s hardly missed a day in fifteen years.  There are two cars in the garage and a chauffeur.  Did it ever occur to you to go and find out what was the matter?  Just because she’s only a charlady. She’s a human being and you’re supposed to be a B----- Christian!”

Without further ado, I stormed down to the shed and grabbed one of the family’s bicycles. I had a vague idea where Mabel lived and I was going to find out what was wrong. And woe betide anybody who dared to try and stop me.

No more than an hour later, having pedalled like fury,  I found myself on the doorstep of a small labourer’s cottage just off the village green in Onham.  After my five-mile journey, having knocked on two doors and been rudely received, I felt rather foolish, and considered giving up. But thoughts of Mabel’s job prevented me from turning back.  I knocked. Waited. No answer, so I knocked again.  I studied the peeling paintwork, the broken letterbox.  I could hear movement. Then footsteps, drawing closer. The door opened a mere crack.. A rheumy eye peered out. 

“Wha,” was grunted from the small slit of a mouth, the door opening a fraction wider.

“Oh excuse me, I’m terribly sorry to bother you, but I’m enquiring as to the whereabouts of Mabel Searle.  I was told this was where she lived.”  I forced my most charming smile.

“And who wants to know?”  The face protruded further, causing me to recoil from the reek of stale beer and tobacco fumes.

“I’m her friend Grace.  Mabel works for my parents.” I explained.

“Come to spy on the lazy cow, have you?  Well, she’s took to her bed and won’t get out, so you can’t see her.” The door was slammed in my face.  Beginning to turn away, my conscience got the better of me.   Mabel must be really ill. Summoning all my courage I knocked once more.  This time the door flew wide open and I found myself staring straight into Mabel’s golden eyes, set in a much younger face.  Her hair was swept up into a coloured scarf, she was wearing overalls and a cigarette hung from the corner of her mouth. Her hands on the door were red and chapped,  fingernails gnawed to the quick.

“Look here, my mum’s real bad and can’t come to work.  My brother telephoned on Friday to let them know.”  This was delivered at top speed, the cigarette bobbing on her lip as she spoke.

“Oh, I see, we don’t seem to have got the message. So I’ve come to visit your mother who I consider my - ” Searching for the right words, I finally blurted out. “I consider your mother my friend and I’m really worried about her.  Please, could I come in and see her?  I’m a trained nurse, you know.”  I was determined to see Mabel, even though it meant exaggerating my nursing status.

“All right I suppose, but the place is a mess.  I’m working long hours in the munitions factory and the men never clean up after themselves.”  I followed her inside. 

There was no entrance, no hallway.  We walked straight into what I assumed must be the parlour.  It was dark and dingy and the walls were stained yellow from cigarette smoke.  Above the mock-marble mantlepiece, a clock chimed five.  A pitiful fire spluttered in the grate, spitting onto the blackened hearth.  A large battered Victorian sofa and ill-matching armchairs jockeyed for position in the confined space.  Watery light spilled through the one tiny window, dappling the moth eaten fur of an emaciated tabby cat that lay curled on a threadbare rug.  I tried to disguise my shock as I followed my escort into a tiny stairwell and up a winding flight of narrow stairs with no banister. Then, on through another dark doorway and into Mabel’s bedroom. 

At first, I couldn’t make out where she was, the room was so dark. Her daughter pulled open the worn velvet curtains (cast-offs from the House) and I was able to discern the outline of a body buried beneath a faded quilt on one of the two beds crowding the room.  A tuft of thin grey hair melded into a drab pillow. The air was stale and reeked of urine.  As I stood, transfixed, the bed shook as the sound of a hacking cough arose from beneath the quilt. I recovered from my stupor and moved to her side.  “Look out for the poe.” The daughter hissed, and I discovered the source of the smell.  Tentatively, I perched on the edge of the sagging bed, placing my palm on my friend’s forehead. 

“She’s burning up.” I whispered.  “Has she had the doctor?”

“You bloody barmy?  Who can afford a doctor?” she cackled, waking the patient.

“ What is it?”  Mabel pulled herself up, bony frame trembling from the effort.  She was gasping for breath. I could see she was gravely ill. She looked ghastly, eyes sunken in her waxy face.  The hand of death was beginning to imprint itself upon her features. Tenderly, I stroked the sodden hair from her brow, reassuring her. She struggled to reply.

“Ssh, ssh. Conserve your strength, there’s a dear.” She drifted back into semi-consciousness.  I rose and gestured the daughter to follow me onto the landing, demanding.  “How long has she been like this?”

“What’s it got to do with you?  Pushing your toffee nose in.”  The small face jutted close, wiry body rigid with indignation.  “We’ve looked after her best we could.”

“Of course. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to suggest anything else.  But I’m afraid your mother has pneumonia.  I’m going to cycle to the public house and find out where I can find the nearest doctor.”

“There ain’t no doctor in this village, you’ll have to go to Maidstone and how can you cycle there in the blackout?”

Night was indeed falling but the house was so dark I hadn’t noticed.  “Is there a telephone in the pub?” I enquired.  “I’m going to ring my father.  He’ll know what to do.  And don’t worry about the expense. You see to the blackout curtains and I’ll be straight back.”

“Yeah, yer ladyship.” The girl sneered. 

I found a telephone box just outside the pub. Dad answered and once I had outlined the problem, he agreed to call his physician. Stressing the urgency of the matter, I thanked him, then ran back to the house.  The door was firmly closed.

“Oh for goodness sake, not again.” I rapped on the perished wood. “Let me in. Your mother needs a nurse.”

“Does she? So? What’s it to you?”  He had come up behind me silent as a cat

Although I could only make out his silhouette,  I knew him instantly.  Hadn’t I been waiting for this moment? I took a deep breath.

“I happen to be extremely fond of your mother, who needs professional care.  I’ve just telephoned for the doctor.  If she doesn’t get attention soon, she may not pull through.” In my consternation, I’d turned to face him, grabbed hold of his arms.  I could feel the ripple of hard muscle through his clothing. “Please,” I was near to tears. “Please let me help.”

He pushed me away and hammered on the door.  “Pop. Let me in you daft old bugger.”  The door was opened and he rushed into the house and up the stairs to his mother.  When I reached her bedroom, I found him kneeling at her side, whispering as he stroked her hair.

“Joyce was supposed to be looking after her.  She wasn’t this bad when I left home this morning,” He leant across the bed to turn up the lamp.  I was surprised to see he wore a uniform. 

“Home Guard.” he explained, as if he could read my thoughts.  “Been training all day, called in for a pint with the old fellas. Mum? Mum? She’s not answering me. Bugger! Joyce?”  His sister stood behind me in the doorway.  “My God, girl, she’s in a bleeding coma or something.  Why haven’t you got some help?”

I’m here to help.  I think she’s got pneumonia. We need to get her fever down. Could you please get some warm water.” 

We lost all track of time.  It was difficult tending to the patient in the cramped, dark room. The son insisted on staying. With his help, I managed to sponge his mother down, to change the bedding and her nightdress.  The urgency of the situation served to ease the initial tension. The sister huddled on the landing, her slight body bent at the waist, shoulders hunched forward. Now and again, she uttered a stifled sob. 

“Shut that snivelling and make a cuppa.” He said, not unkindly. Just then, a disturbance heralded the arrival of the doctor.  I heard his heavy tread on the stair and suddenly realised the compromising nature of my position.  My stepmother would go mad if she found out. I slipped out of the room and went in search of the kitchen.

It wasn’t difficult to find, being one of the only two rooms on the ground floor. By now I was prepared for its shabbiness. Until today, I’d associated Mabel with her job; with the House and the Cottage.  I was ashamed to admit I’d never before attempted to visualise her own home. 

The kitchen was small, dark and cramped.  A large black range dominated the room, throwing out minimal heat.  There was a tiny Belfast pot sink next to a miserable wooden draining board, upon which crouched the shapes of kitchen utensils.  A small scrubbed table dominated the centre of the room.  Next to the hearth was a large, battered rocking chair, which housed the scowling old man.  Joyce was removing the kettle from the range. On the table, the large chipped teapot was now being filled with water.  “How do you like it, your ladyship?”

“Strong enough to stand the spoon up in. I’m parched. ” I replied in conspiratorial tones.  Joyce passed a cup over to the old man, who said nothing, although  I could feel his beady little eyes boring into me as I sipped my tea.  I tried to suppress my anxiety; the doctor had been with Mabel for ages. 

“Is my mum going to be all right?” whined Joyce, reading my thoughts.

“Well, let’s hope so, but she is very ill.” 

The old man jumped up from his chair.  “Silly cow!” He spat in my direction.

“Shut up Pop, you daft old bugger.” Joyce put her hands on his shoulders, forcing him back down.  “Take no notice your ladyship.  He’s three sheets to the wind half the time.”  

I was growing tired and thus irritable.   “I do have a name, you know.  Please call me Grace.  I insist.” Before Joyce could reply, we heard voices as the doctor and Stan made their way to the front door.  Should I intervene? As a nurse, the doctor would surely wish to speak with me. Just then, he popped his head around the door. 

“Miss Grace, I made my way here in the pony and trap, the only way to get about in the blackout.  Can I give you a lift?”  With a jerk, I realised I wasn’t ready to leave. How could I be certain my friend would be all right?  I tried to dismiss my fears. I had to be on duty at five the next morning.   I rose from the rickety chair, which groaned in relief.  The son, Stan stood behind the doctor. His stance showed how tense he must be; all these strangers invading his house.  Of course, I must go, leave these people to regain some semblance of normality. 

“Thanks, Doctor Robinson.  I do hope Mabel will be all right. May I pop in tomorrow evening?”

“Er, but ..please. Could you stay a bit longer? I can have you home on the back of my bike in no time. ” Stan obviously had no idea what to do next.

The doctor looked embarrassed. “Really, Miss Grace, I do think you should accompany me now.  I promised your Mother I’d see you home safely.”  How old did Mother think I was, for God’s sake?  I was about to comply when I became aware of Stan’s indignant tones.

“Of course.  As if Miss Grace’s parents would approve of her being here, with the likes of us.”

I’d show him I wasn’t the snob he thought I was. “Don’t be ridiculous, of course they’ll understand I’m needed to help settle Mabel for the night.  Do give them my message,  please Dr Robinson. Thanks for the offer, but I’m staying.” With that I turned away from the doctor and sat back down on  to finish my tea. 

Later I managed, with Joyce’s help, to rummage up the ingredients for a mustard plaster, which Stan and I administered to good effect.  The patient’s breathing improved, her fever abated.  The doctor was visiting again tomorrow and my father had also promised to send some healing.  At last, I felt content to leave until the following evening. 

It was nearing midnight when I reached my flat. I fumbled with the keys in the lock, all too conscious of the man who stood behind me, having escorted me in a gentlemanly fashion to the threshold. The hair-raising journey on the back of his motorbike in the pitch dark was not the only reason my limbs trembled.  Travel by such means of transport, I had discovered, meant intimate proximity between driver and passenger.  My face flamed as I recalled how my breasts had been pressed up against his hard back. Now, with his hand resting lightly on my shoulder, I was finding it hard to concentrate. It was only with a great deal of effort that I finally succeeded in opening the door. 

““Thanks awfully for the lift.”  I shouted over my shoulder, ears roaring from the noise of the engine.  His reply sounded uncomfortably close to my left ear.

“It’s me who should thank you.” His breath was warm on my neck.  “Mum could of died if it wasn’t for you.  We’ll never forget your kindness.”

I promised to visit the next evening before I ran up the stairs.  Although exhausted, and still worried about Mabel, I couldn’t sleep.  As I tossed and turned, I tried to rid myself of thoughts of Stan, his soft voice and hard body. Although no longer a virgin,  I had never experienced sexual arousal to the degree engendered by the enforced intimacy of a motorbike ride with this man. ‘For God’s sakes, Grace.  He’s younger than you and besides, he’s courting the blonde bus conductress, remember?’ Not once did it enter my head that he was only a char’s son.

As soon as I’d finished work the next day, I cycled to Mabel’s.  This time the door stood open, Joyce’s slight frame outlined against the dim vault of the parlour. “Thank Gawd, at last! I don’t know what to do. She’s got worse. Listen to her breathing.” 

I could indeed hear great raspings for air issuing from above.  I found my patient sitting upright in the bed, thin hair plastered to her head, her skin seeming translucent in the dim room.  From out of the white sphere of her face, enormous eyes stared ahead, mouth a gaping wound as she struggled for breath. I found myself almost at a loss. I searched my mind for inspiration. It came. I swung round to the whimpering girl.  “Have you got any oil of camphor?”

“Don’t even know what it is.”  She sobbed. “Mum, mum please don’t die.” 

The last thing I needed to contend with was a hysterical girl.  “Pull yourself together,” I hissed, in a perfect imitation of Mother. “Panicking won’t help. Run to your neighbours and knock on every door until you get some.  I’ll make another mustard plaster.  Did you get the ingredients?”

“Yes, they’re in the kitchen.” With something to do, Joyce calmed down.  We both hurried to our tasks, she out into the street, myself into the kitchen. 

“What’s all this bleedin’ row about?” The old man sat in the chair as he had last night, surrounded by disorder.  Not bothering to reply, I swept a pile of dirty plates from the table and set about making the mustard plaster. “Haven’t you got a civil tongue in your head?”  I hadn’t noticed him coming up beside me, and almost jumped out of my skin.  “What’s going on?” 

I now knew this old man to be Mabel’s father-in-law. Over the years, Mabel had been known to arrive at work bearing strange abrasions and bruises, which she attributed to her own clumsiness. Having met him, I was now certain this odious creature was responsible. I didn’t feel I owed him any kind of explanation. He was relatively able-bodied and I was about to put him to work. “Your daughter-in-law could be dying and you ask what’s going on.  We need all the help we can get if she’s to pull through. Can you bring a bowl of tepid water and some towels upstairs. Oh and put the kettle on. We’ll need plenty of steam to provide a vaporiser.”   I hurried past, leaving him open-mouthed in astonishment.

“And get a move on.” I shouted with satisfaction before returning to my patient. I managed to change her nightgown without assistance.  I could feel her racing heart as I leaned her against me to undo the ties at her back.  Her pulse was rapid, her breathing still laboured. I heard a noise behind me. There stood the old man, bowl of water in his hands, grubby towel under his left armpit. “ Thanks.” I nodded for him to place the receptacle at my side.  “Please, could you see to the blackout curtains.  We don’t want Jerry adding to our worries do we?”

“No wonder they call you her ladyship.” Muttering, he did as he was told. He must care for Mabel after all. When Joyce arrived, the three of us, using an old sheet,  rigged up a rudimentary oxygen tent. 

“Come on. Deep breaths, try and cough, cough it up.” I held a pudding basin as a makeshift sputum tray.  On the other side, Joyce held a saucepan filled with steam and camphor. All three of us were streaming with sweat. Nobody spoke. We were so intent on our task, it was as if we were a single living entity, locked together in the struggle for Mabel’s life.  The old man brought up a constant supply of hot water.  And slowly, the whoops for breath became gasps then faint pants, until she was breathing evenly again.  Placing my hand under her shoulder blades, I could feel the rustle of the infection as it began to loosen its grip. “Right. Now, Joyce, we need the mustard plaster. She’s near the crisis.” Gently, we put the plaster in place, then eased Mabel back onto her pillows.

“Water, water.” I held a glass to my patient’s parched lips.  She smiled up at me.  “Grace, what in heaven’s name are you doing here?”  Then her eyelids fluttered and she drifted off into a near peaceful sleep.

“I think she’ll be all right for the time being.”  Exhausted, I emerged from the makeshift oxygen tent.  I removed my glasses, which were so steamed up I couldn’t see a thing.  Putting them back on again I found myself looking straight into Stan’s compelling eyes.

“Come on downstairs and have a cuppa.” I read the gratitude on his handsome face. Knowing I must look an awful fright, I could feel myself blushing. ‘Don’t be a fool Grace, you’re not on a fashion parade.’ I told myself.  I smiled and followed him to the kitchen.

Later, seated on the rickety chair, clasping a mug of hot, strong tea, I tried to hide the trembling of my hands. The crisis was approaching. I couldn’t bear to leave until the danger was past.  I’d promised to telephone Mother, but I was too tired to walk to the phone box . I sighed.

“What? What is it - Grace?” Joyce, spoke in hushed tones, face drawn with worry. “What’s wrong?  Don’t you think she’ll pull through?” The room was silent as they waited for me to reply.  These people trusted me; merited my opinion and abilities.  For one of the few occasions in my life, I felt truly valued.  I had to swallow hard before replying.

“We can only do our best, and pray for help.  I’m certain we’ll win through.”

“You mean - you’re staying?”  Stan sounded surprised. 

“Of course.” I didn’t hesitate.  “We’ll need as many hands as possible. Listen.”  From above us came the creak of bedsprings.    “Quick, it’s starting again.”  I rushed up the stairs, Joyce at my heels.  Stan followed with hot water for the inhaler.

Mabel was thrashing about in the bed, deliriously calling her dead husband’s name. I bathed her with cool water while Joyce set up the vaporiser.  Under the sheet we huddled. Again the hoarse breathing quickened, then settled down.  I lost count of how many times this procedure was repeated during that long night. I felt ready to collapse, about to lose hope, when suddenly, Mabel sat up. Voice feeble, she said. “Lor, I’d love a nice cuppa.” The fever had broken.

We all exchanged delighted smiles and if any one of us noticed the others’ eyes were wet, we put it down to the steam.  Somebody got Mabel a cup of tea, while I  lay down on Joyce’s bed. I was desperate for some rest. The next thing I knew, light was creeping in around the blackout curtains.  I looked over at my friend who was still breathing steadily.  Thank God, no one else was here to see me, hair dishevelled, still wearing my muddy uniform, having slept on a shabby bed in a servant’s home.  

There was every chance I could sneak out, go to work and then back to my flat without my absence being discovered. I was about to rise when I heard footsteps. The door swung open and there stood the doctor, accompanied by my father. He looked uncharacteristically angry. I tried to sit up but seemed to have no strength in my arms, sinking back down onto the grey bed. Dad’s face floated above me, but it looked strange - bloated and shapeless.  His lips were moving, but his voice seemed muffled.

“What is it Dad?”  I asked, but he took no notice. My clothes were soaking. I wondered if the roof leaked.  The bedcovers felt so tight. They were suffocating me. I was aware of a cool hand on my forehead, a glass at my lips.  I slept. I was woken by sirens. I writhed about to try and loosen the bonds that were tightening around my chest.  I felt myself being lifted.  Had I fallen into enemy hands? 

“No, no. Help. Let me go.  Somebody help me!”  A bee was buzzing around my head – it stung me on the arm.  After that, I remember nothing else.  I sank into oblivion.


Sebastian

It is I, Sebastian, who snatches her back from the brink – ensuring  she lives  to continue her journey, to follow in her father’s footsteps.

 

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