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Authors: Lily Baxter

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BOOK: The Girls in Blue
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‘Supplies of what, Grandpa?’

He tapped the side of his nose, winking. ‘Potatoes. Elzevir will know what I mean.’ He paused, cocking his head on one side. ‘If I’m not mistaken those dulcet tones are Annie’s and she’s calling you. Go now and tell her that I’m starving to death and would be most obliged if she could knock up an omelette or a sandwich. Anything other than rock cakes.’

Miranda reached up and kissed his whiskery cheeks. ‘I love you, Grandpa.’

He blinked and a dull flush suffused his face. ‘And I love you, precious. Now off you go and don’t let Annie boss you around too much.’

Almost as the words left his mouth the outer door was wrenched open and Annie stamped into the building. ‘I’ve been calling you, miss. Have you got cloth ears or something?’

‘Sorry, I didn’t hear you,’ Miranda said truthfully. ‘What is it?’

‘You’d better come quick. You too, sir. She’s off on one of her wild schemes again. It’ll be worse than her plans for growing watercress in the bathtub.’

‘I really don’t think this is a good idea, Maggie.’ George ran his hand through his mop of unruly grey hair, leaving it standing on end so that he looked even more like Miranda’s idea of a mad professor. If her grandfather was puzzled, then so was she. Why her grandmother had taken it into her head to
ask
Rita to stay with them at Highcliffe was baffling everyone, including Annie whose bottom lip was sticking out so far she could have balanced a half-crown on it. Rita had her head down and was apparently studying her feet. Miranda stared from one bemused face to the other not daring to say a word. Granny might be easy-going but she would not appreciate her decision being challenged by anyone. Miranda could only hope that this would be one of the rare occasions when Grandpa put his foot down, but her heart sank as she saw his expression change subtly even though he was smiling. Granny was used to getting her own way and woe betide anyone who dared to challenge her authority. A quick glance at her grandmother’s set jaw and the determined tilt of her chin was enough to convince Miranda that this battle of wills had already been won.

‘George, darling, it’s just a temporary arrangement. I’ve told Rita that she can stay with us until Mrs Proffitt gets out of hospital. It seems the least we can do for the poor child.’

This last remark brought Rita’s head up with a jerk. ‘Don’t talk about me as if I wasn’t here, and I ain’t a kid; I can look after meself. If the old girl’s still in hospital after a stroke the chances are she’s not going to get well enough to take me in. So if you’ll run me to the station, guv, I’ll get the next train back to London.’

‘But where would you go?’ Miranda could keep
silent
no longer. It was obvious that Rita was close to tears despite her attempt at bravado. ‘You told me that you didn’t have anybody else.’

‘I’ll get a job in a munitions factory, or maybe I’ll go to the film studios at Ealing and see if I can find work there. I could be one of them starlets you read about in
Picturegoer
and
Picture Show
. I love them magazines, don’t you?’

Maggie gave her a pitying look. ‘But you’re little more than a child, Rita. You need someone to look after you.’ She nudged her husband in the ribs. ‘Say something, George. You know that Rita’s a minor; she shouldn’t have to fend for herself. I can’t see what objections you could possibly have to her staying here on a temporary basis.’

‘We need to talk about this, Maggie.’ He drew her aside.

Miranda waited anxiously for their decision. She had not warmed to Rita from the start and nothing she had said or done had changed that first impression, but a small voice in her head was telling her not to be so mean. She was seeing her with new and slightly more sympathetic eyes. When they met this morning she had thought her rather common and a bit annoying, but looking at her now, with her skinny arms clasped tightly around her equally scrawny frame, Miranda felt a sudden surge of sympathy. Not only was Rita’s cotton dress faded and grubby, it was at least a size too large, suggesting that it was second-hand. Her cardigan was in holes
where
her bony elbows had worn through the wool, and her shoes were scuffed and down at heel. All that she owned was packed in that battered cardboard suitcase and, even worse, Rita was all alone in the world.

‘What do you think, Miranda? Wouldn’t you like to have someone of your own age to keep you company? We both feel that you should have a say in this.’

Miranda came back to the present with a jolt to find her grandmother waiting eagerly for her response. She knew what was expected of her. ‘Yes, Granny.’ She turned to Rita with an attempt at a smile. ‘Please stay with us until Mrs Proffitt is well enough to leave hospital.’

‘I’m sure it will work out very well for all concerned.’ Maggie turned to Rita with an encouraging smile. ‘It’s entirely up to you, my dear. But I want you to know that you will be most welcome to stay here for as long as you like. We’ve plenty of room and it will be absolutely no trouble. What do you say?’

Rita shrugged her shoulders. ‘I don’t mind if I do, but what about him?’ She jerked her head in George’s direction. ‘He’s the guvner. Don’t he get the last word?’

‘If I do it will be the first time ever,’ he said drily. ‘And I see that I’m outnumbered. You’re welcome to stay with us, Rita.’ He moved towards the doorway. ‘And now please may we have some lunch,
Maggie?
I don’t know about these girls but I am absolutely starving.’

‘Thank God someone’s had the nerve to mention it,’ Rita said with a heartfelt sigh. ‘I’m so hungry I could eat a bloody horse, hooves and all.’

There was a stunned silence, but Maggie was the first to recover. ‘Sandwiches will be the order of the day, Annie. I’m sure there must be some cheese in the larder.’ She took Rita by the hand. ‘Come with me, dear. I think we need to have a little talk before we go any further.’ She glanced over her shoulder as they were about to leave the room. ‘We’ll join you in a minute. Rita and I have some things to sort out first.’

‘I wouldn’t like to be in her shoes,’ Annie muttered as they left the room. ‘But that young lady needs putting in her place. She’s got too much to say for herself for my liking.’

‘I’ll be in my workshop.’ George headed for the back door. ‘Call me when lunch is ready.’

‘I’ll go and start unpacking.’ Miranda was about to follow her grandmother and Rita from the kitchen but Annie caught her by the sleeve. ‘No you don’t, young lady. You can stay here and help me make the sandwiches. You’ve got all afternoon and evening to sort your things out.’

‘I suppose so, but she’s getting off lightly.’

Annie pulled a face. ‘When you’ve suffered the rough edge of your granny’s tongue as I’m sure young Rita’s doing at this minute, then you’ll be
able
to decide who’s come off best. Now get along with you and less of the lip. I’ve been with this family too long to put up with any nonsense from spoilt little girls.’

‘I’m not a little girl and I’m not spoilt.’

‘I didn’t mean you. I was thinking of Miss Eileen; she was the apple of your grandad’s eye, even after Master Jack was born. She only had to ask and she could have had the top brick off the chimbley.’

‘I only met Aunt Eileen once. She came home on leave with her husband and their two children.’

‘I’d rather forget that visit. They were the two worst behaved little brats I’ve ever had the misfortune to meet. Anyway, we’d better stop gassing or you’ll be eating lunch at teatime.’ Taking a loaf from the bread bin she began slicing it. ‘The cheese is in the larder and there’s a jar of pickles on the shelf. By the way I’ll need your ration book and Rita’s too. I hope she doesn’t eat too much. We’re all out of horsemeat.’ She made a gruff gurgling sound, laughing at her own joke. ‘Cheer up, Miranda. It might never happen.’

‘What?’

‘Whatever it is that’s made you look like you lost a shilling and found sixpence.’ Annie’s lined face creased into a caricature of a grin. ‘Don’t worry; your granny will knock Miss Rita into shape. She won’t stand for any nonsense. Now spread the butter very thinly. There’s a week’s ration there, unless I can do another deal with Farmer Drake.’

Miranda paused with the knife clutched in her hand. ‘What sort of deal?’

‘Never you mind.’ Annie tapped the side of her nose. ‘Times are hard and going to get a lot harder before this war’s over. We’re going back to the old ways of bartering for things, but that’s between you and me and the gatepost.’

Rita was unusually silent but appeared to be unchastened after her heart to heart with Maggie. She limited her conversation to please and thank you during lunch and Miranda hoped that she was not going to sulk for the rest of the day. It was going to be hard enough to find common ground between them, and almost impossible if Rita would not meet her halfway.

The lack of verbal communication seemed to have affected everyone seated around the table and the silence was getting on Miranda’s nerves. She swallowed a mouthful of sandwich. ‘There were crowds of people at the railway station today,’ she said, making an attempt at conversation. ‘I overheard someone saying that they were evacuees from the Channel Islands.’

Maggie looked up, her eyes alight with interest. ‘I heard that on the wireless this morning. Poor souls, it must be heartbreaking to be in such a terrible situation.’

‘The authorities are doing all they can to help.’ George selected another sandwich and put it on his
plate
. ‘The WVS are doing a great job, but it’s a logistical nightmare.’

‘There seemed to be hundreds of them at the station,’ Miranda said with a catch in her voice. ‘They were mostly mothers with very young children.’

Maggie frowned thoughtfully. ‘Is there anything we can do, George?’

‘I think it’s all in hand, my dear. Best leave it to those who are experienced in these matters.’ He rose from the table. ‘I’ll be in the workshop if anyone needs me.’

‘Yes, dear,’ Maggie said meekly. She waited until the door closed behind him before rising to her feet. ‘Your grandfather is still coming to terms with the terrible things he saw at Dunkirk and the loss of his old friend, Miranda, and we must take care not to upset him. However, that mustn’t stop us doing our Christian duty. We’ve got important work to do.’

‘But, Granny, we haven’t unpacked yet and you haven’t said which bedroom Rita is to have.’

‘Don’t worry about me,’ Rita said through a mouthful of bread and cheese. ‘I can sleep in the dog kennel if I have to.’

‘That won’t be necessary. We can sort the sleeping arrangements out later. We’re going into town.’ Maggie snatched her handbag from a chair by the door. ‘Get a move on, Miranda; you too, Rita. There are people who need our help.’

*

It seemed that they were doomed to walk the whole length of the beach road and even further. By the time they reached the town Miranda was hot and breathless and wishing she could throw the wretched gas mask into the sea. Rita had trudged along silent, but patently out of sorts. She had barely said one word since they left the house and then it was only to complain that she had a stone in her shoe.

The Esplanade was crowded with people and every sort of conveyance from buses to horse-drawn carts and pony traps. Maggie strode purposefully towards the ferry terminal but as they reached the Alexandra Gardens she came to a halt. The grounds around the theatre were overflowing with evacuees and the officials who were attempting to help them.

‘Wait here,’ Maggie said firmly. She crossed the road to speak to a group of women who seemed to be in charge.

If anything, Miranda thought with a feeling of sympathy, the volunteers looked even more tired and frustrated than the people they were helping. She waited patiently while her grandmother and the officials embarked on a seemingly endless conversation, but she was beginning to feel light-headed with fatigue. It had been a long day and an emotionally exhausting one.

‘This is nuts,’ Rita said, shifting from foot to foot. ‘I dunno what she thinks we can do here.’

Miranda shielded her eyes from the sunlight. ‘I
think
we’re about to find out. She’s coming back and it looks as though she’s got a boatload of women and kids following her.’

‘Oh my God.’ Rita clapped her hand over her mouth. ‘You and me are going to be sleeping in the outside lav at this rate.’

Maggie came striding towards them leading her flock. She paused for a moment as she caught sight of Tommy Toop, who had apparently fixed his cart and was touting for business. ‘Tommy Toop, come here this minute.’

He approached her warily. ‘What’s up, missis?’

‘Help the ladies to put their cases in your cart.’

He shook his head. ‘I can’t take that lot.’

Maggie bit her lip. Behind her the children were crying and some of the women were demanding to know what was going on. ‘No,’ she said at length. ‘You’re right. Miranda, take Rita and see if you can find someone with any kind of conveyance which will take these poor people and their belongings to Highcliffe. Never mind the expense. This is an emergency.’ She turned to the women with an encouraging smile. ‘Don’t worry, ladies. We’re just finding suitable transport. Please be patient for a little while longer.’ She jerked her head in the direction of the harbourside. ‘Go on, girls. Chop-chop. You too, Tommy.’

‘What on earth are we supposed to do?’ Rita demanded as soon as they were out of earshot. ‘There’s no chance of finding a taxi in this dump.’

‘Hang on,’ Tommy said crossly. ‘Just because you come from London don’t mean you can be rude about our town. There’s a war on, you know.’

Rita thrust her face close to his. ‘Of course I know it, you moron. I wouldn’t be seen dead in a backwater like this if it wasn’t for the bloody war.’

Miranda could see another conflict looming and she decided to take charge of the situation. ‘You two go along the harbour and I’ll walk along St Mary Street. Maybe we can find a carter or someone with a van who’s willing to take them to Highcliffe.’ She hurried off before either of them could argue.

The atmosphere in the streets seemed to be charged with urgency, as if the war had suddenly arrived on their doorstep and shattered the peace of the seaside town. Miranda quickened her pace, dodging through the crowds and cutting down one of the narrow side streets as she headed for the town centre, but as she rounded the corner she cannoned into someone laden with cardboard boxes. Everything flew up in the air and Miranda stumbled off the edge of the kerb, falling to her knees in the gutter.

BOOK: The Girls in Blue
2.78Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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