© Carola Hughes-Hartmann
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This is the first of three books charting an unusual family history.
It has been supported by family letters, artefacts, anecdotes, photographs, and research to verify historical detail.
This reflects the way the social structure of society began to change after WW2.
MARGARET (Early 1940's)
Margaret dusted the earth off her hands. She hoped she had pulled just the right amount of carrots Mum needed for the vegetable pie. They were the first ones this year. Too many, and Mum would scold her for waste, not enough and somebody would go hungry. She sat down amongst a row of leeks Dad had planted. Around her there was greenery diligently tended by everyone lucky enough to have an allotment. Today she was alone amongst the growing plants. The sun was shining. It was peaceful. She felt tired; last night’s raids had been relentless. She hated the Anderson shelter. It was dark and damp; it was impossible to sleep. The noise of bombs falling and not knowing where they were landing scared her. Then there was that eerie feeling; emerging in the morning and not knowing what you were going to find.
Half dozing in the warmth, she was jerked awake by the air raid siren. Shocked by its sound in broad daylight, she scrambled to her feet; there was nowhere to hide. She looked behind her to the munitions factory; Dad said that’s what they had been targeting last night. She could hear the whine of a German plane.
The ack-ack of the anti-aircraft guns by the docks sounded and then a single Messerschmitt swooped low over the allotments, heading towards the factory.
She froze. She could see the pilot’s goggles and leather helmet. Bullets strafed around her, demolishing the carefully tended bed. Soil sprayed her. She spat it out of her mouth and dragged at the clumps in her hair.
He flew over the factory targeting that as well. She saw people fall in the yard surrounding it. Then he turned and came back. Margaret stood her ground and gave him the V for victory sign. She crossed herself and prepared to die. But no bullets this time, instead, the pilot dipped a wing of his machine at her in salute, and flew on. The next minute the guns rang out again; she saw it burst into flames and go down. There was a large explosion. It must have ditched into the bay.
She wondered why he had spared her. Maybe he had a daughter of his own. She walked home; her legs felt wobbly and her mouth was dry with shock. She knew she could never tell Mum.
She crept in the back way and cleaned herself up as best she could in the scullery sink before bursting into the kitchen with an attempt at her usual energy.
Her mother was standing at the table measuring out ingredients for pastry.
‘Thank goodness! I went into the shelter when the siren went, and I didn’t know where you were.’
Margaret crossed her fingers behind her back,
‘I was fine Mum, I met a friend from school and we were chatting outside her house so I dived into their shelter.’
‘Did you manage to get the carrots, Meggy?’
‘Yes Mum. They’re in the scullery.
‘Dad’s back safe too; he says it was just a lone plane. It went down before it could do too much damage. Now are you going to give me a hand with this?’
'I'll just go up and change, I got a bit muddy on the allotments.'
Her mother was measuring flour into the scales with meticulous care, and didn't even look up as Margaret slid past.
While Margaret peeled and chopped some of her equilibrium returned.
By the time the pie was cooked she felt almost normal, and the routine of family mealtime helped too. Her father was dressed in his Home Guard uniform, ready for duty. Dora was agog with the tale of the bomb that had fallen on the telephone exchange the night before.
‘They’ve tidied up as much as they can. Luckily none of the equipment was damaged. I can’t believe they still expect us to work with an unexploded bomb under us. They have given us all tin helmets in case it goes off.’ Margaret giggled,
‘If it’s under the ground, shouldn’t you have tin knickers instead?’
Her mother dropped her knife and fork.
‘Enough of that young lady, what with your brother, who could be burnt to death on fire watching duty, your dad out all hours God knows where, and Dora with a bomb under her feet at work; how can you make a joke about it? What immediate danger have you faced I'd like to know?’
Margaret forked another mouthful of pie, to avoid answering. Mum turned her attention to Eric,
‘How was your day?’
Eric started an explanation of lectures attended. Her parents were hanging on to every word. He’d always wanted to be a doctor and had just been accepted at the university when the war loomed. He decided he wanted to train as a fighter pilot. He’d failed the medical; he was colour blind – effectively meaning he could not join any of the forces, or be called up. So he’d begun his course. Every spare penny her parents had, had gone on books and equipment he needed.
Margaret felt sorry for him; his best friend, Philip, had joined the RAF and was now flying Spitfires. He came home when he was on leave, handsome in his uniform, and making cow-eyes at Dora.
Eric received abuse from people who thought he should be fighting, people who slipped white feathers through the letter box.
What was Mum saying now?
‘There’s a parcel for you Eric. It’s very heavy. The postman was struggling with it. I told him it was probably my son’s skeleton and he dropped it. It’s in the front yard.’ Eric burst out laughing.
‘Oh Mum, trust you to say something like that! What must the poor postie have thought? No wonder he dropped it. I need it though, we start anatomy next week.’
Margaret's little dog, Judy, jumped on to her lap and licked her nose; she summoned her courage,
‘I want to be a vet. When I matriculate, I want to go to vet school; I want to learn to look after animals.’
For once she had grabbed the whole family’s attention.Dad used her full name, so she knew he was serious.
‘Margaret, there is no way we can afford for you to go to vet school. Not ever. We won’t have any savings left after Eric has finished his training. The country needs doctors not vets.’
‘If I can’t do that, what can I do?’
‘How about training as a teacher,’ Mum soothed, ‘you’re brilliant with the children at Sunday school. Teacher training is partially government funded now. We might be able to help with that.’
MARGARET - I949
THE EAST END OF LONDON.
‘How old are you?’ Margaret faced the elderly man sitting behind the desk.
‘These are very good exam results, but have you had any previous teaching experience?’
‘A little, I have taught Sunday school, and also have worked at a boarding school as a house matron during the last few years; I looked after the boys who couldn't go home during the holidays too, so although I wasn’t teaching, I have worked with children. I’ve brought references.’
‘You realise most of the pupils here are traumatised. Some of them stayed here for the duration. Some were evacuated and had a terrible time, others loved it, and can’t wait to go back to the country, but most of them were brought back to carnage and the flying bombs. They’re all difficult.’ Margaret squared her shoulders,
‘I lived through the Cardiff Blitz. I’m from Splott, near the docks. My parents wouldn’t allow me to be evacuated, but friends of mine were. I think I'll be able to understand the pupil’s problems.’ He sighed,
‘I doubt it. This is the East End; we had some very odd characters even before the war. I have to ask you, what are your plans for the future?’
‘I’m hoping to get proper training when I have saved some money, working here would be good experience for me.’
‘It’ll certainly be an experience!’ he commented wryly. He leant back in his chair, took a pair of glasses from his pocket and read her references.
‘I suppose you’ll do, and I admit I’m desperate for staff. This particular class have seen off several teachers in the past few weeks. To be frank, I don’t think you will last more than a few days.’ Margaret started to laugh.
‘What’s the joke?’
‘Frank is my father’s name – he said much the same thing himself!’
The following day Margaret stood behind her desk facing forty unruly eleven year olds. She made futile attempts to gain their attention; it was a long noisy few hours.
That night she lay in bed thinking, remembering the children in the boarding school – their tears, nightmares and wet beds. She remembered how she had helped them to come to terms with their problems. These children, although much more streetwise, were surely the same underneath it all. In the early hours she formulated a plan.
The next morning started as a re-run of the day before. Margaret sat quietly behind her desk making no attempt to gain their attention. When the bell rang for break, as one the children all headed for the door. Margaret was already there barring the way, her arms sternly folded.
The leading child stood defiantly in front of her, the rest of them quietened.
‘Miss, its playtime.’
‘Not for this class it isn’t, you’ve had playtime all morning. Nobody is going anywhere until you all sit down quietly at your desks, and I’ve taken the register, and learnt some of your names. The quicker you do it, the more dinner-time you get. It’s meat pie today, with sponge and strawberry custard for pudding,’ she sniffed the air dramatically. ‘Can’t you smell it cooking? I’m taking time off dinner-time starting now. Sit down all of you, I’m counting the seconds.’
One by one the children turned and reluctantly went to their places. The ringleader was the last to go; he slumped at a desk right at the front of the room. Margaret took her place behind her desk. They sat watching her, forty pairs of belligerent, troubled, hungry eyes. The feeling reminded her of the day she had faced the fighter pilot on the allotments. She’d beaten him, hadn’t she? What was a class of eleven year olds in comparison?
‘Now I have your attention at last, we can get to know each other. I’m Miss Stroud. I’ll learn your names as I take the register. Any disturbance and I’ll take more minutes off your lunch.' She glanced around the room with what she hoped was a masterful stare.
She took the register without a hitch. The boy at the front was called Robert.
‘Well done class, now we can begin work.’ Grumbles began from various quarters of the room.
‘I ain’t doing no bloody work.’
‘Not writing nuffin' miss.’
‘I ‘ates maths miss.’
‘I wants the lav.’
Margaret looked at her watch theatrically,
‘I’m counting the seconds again, If anybody wishes to speak, please raise your hand you can all take turns then. I will call the headmaster to escort anyone who needs the lavatory.’ Much to her relief, the room fell quiet again.
‘I thought I would tell you a story this morning.’
‘Not a piggin’ story,’ Robert complained, ‘stories are fer babies.’
‘Remember to put your hand up if you want to say something please Robert. My stories aren’t for babies, and anyway you are all going to help me make it up, so it won’t be babyish will it? Now we are going to choose five things between us. Five things to tell the story about, Robert, you choose first.’ He thought for a moment, and gave in.
‘Pirates, Miss, with swords an’ treasure an’ that.’ Margaret glimpsed the little boy behind the bravado.
‘Good idea, Robert, I like that, has anybody else got a suggestion?’ A forest of fingers began waving at her.
‘Me miss, pick me.’
‘I’ve got a really good one,’
After some discussion, Margaret ended up with pirates, a sea monster, a market trader, a football, a mermaid, and a surprise.
She looked at the girl who had suggested the surprise.
‘Joan, isn’t it? The girl nodded. ‘That’s a really good idea; all good stories should end with a surprise.’ The little boy sitting next to Joan was pale and wan, and she sensed he was as nervous as she was. Margaret remembered his name was Arthur.
She took a deep breath and began her story,
"One day a very brave pirate named Arthur was walking through the market looking for supplies for his ship. He was setting sail tomorrow, and he needed some fresh vegetables to make sure the crew didn’t get scurvy..."
Half an hour later the headmaster looked through the door to see his most turbulent pupils listening enthralled to Miss Stroud’s story.
Just before the bell rang at midday, Margaret stopped her tale on a cliff hanger. There was a gale of groans,
‘Cor miss, what happens next?’
‘It’s dinner-time - you’ll have to wait and see!’
That afternoon, the headmaster visited the classroom again to find the entire class, heads down writing diligently. Miss Stroud was moving up and down the rows of desks, responding to requests for help with spellings.
‘What’s going on here?’ he asked, ‘I’m astounded. I thought it would be chaos again like yesterday.’
‘I had a few ideas overnight. They're writing their own endings to the story I began with them earlier. Sorry, I haven’t stuck to the timetable.’
‘Carry on Miss Stroud, carry on. Don’t hesitate to use the cane if you need to.’
The next few weeks were a constant battle. Little by little she gained their confidence. By creating worlds of fantasy for them, they were transported away from the horrors in their heads. Day by day they began to trust her more and more, and to realise that the cane would not be used. Robert in particular had become her devoted slave.
After a month, she was almost managing to follow the set timetable. She looked at tomorrow: Friday, outdoor PT. She hadn’t risked that one yet. PT sessions were taken on the local playing field; surrounded by turf covered humps of air raid shelters, it resembled an amphitheatre and it should be reasonably safe.
The next day she strung her whistle round her neck and led the class out to the field. The warm up exercises went well; the children were listening and responding, enjoying the open air.
‘Right, now before we do some races, we’re going to play a game. When I say “go” run as fast as you can in any direction, but as soon as I blow my whistle stand absolutely still. Anybody I see move is out and will have to come and sit by me. Ready steady go!’ The children shot off like lightening. Margaret gave it thirty seconds, and then blew.
Nothing happened. No sound.
She whipped the cord off her neck and peered at the silver object. The pea was stuck. She shook it frantically but to no avail. She looked up to shout at the children to come back. Too late; they’d all vanished over the air raid shelters. She was left standing in an empty field. Pointless to run and look, they were scattered everywhere. What should she do? Stand there and wait for them to come back? She'd lost an entire class.
The ghost of the fighter pilot emerged again. She half expected him to appear, swoop down over her and strike her down this time.
Then a little lone figure appeared running towards her, fair hair flopping in the breeze. Robert collapsed at her feet panting.
‘Miss, I thought you was goin’ to whistle us to stop. We did what you said, we kep runnin.’ Margaret swallowed trying to keep her voice calm.
‘My whistle wouldn’t blow and you all disappeared.’
‘D’you want me to fetch ‘em back Miss? I knows where some of them is.’
‘Thank you that would be very helpful. I’ll stay here.’ Robert set off again, his legs and arms pumping and his head down. Gradually a few lone stragglers returned. Then Robert emerged over the top of a shelter. Like the Pied Piper, he was followed by a whole crowd. Margaret counted heads. Thirty five; five were still missing. The children sat on the grass; she stood wondering what on earth to do next.
‘Good morning. Might you be looking for these scallywags?’
Margaret turned to find herself face to face with a middle aged man. He lifted a trilby hat from his head in greeting. He was neatly dressed in a tweed suit, a carefully folded white handkerchief poking out of the breast pocket. In one hand he carried a silver topped walking cane and in the other, a lead which was attached to a small cocker spaniel. Behind him was an orderly line of the missing five. Margaret blushed,
‘Thank you so much, the pea got stuck, and...’
‘I was watching, very amusing!’ He waved his walking stick at the children. ‘I think you should get this rabble safely inside four walls again, don’t you?’
‘How can I ever thank you?’ He smiled,
‘You could always have dinner with me tonight.’ He took a silver case from his pocket, opened it and took out an embossed card. ‘A very nice restaurant near Sloane Square, you’ll be quite safe. There’ll be a few of us.’ He extracted a fountain pen from behind the handkerchief, and wrote something on the back of the card. I’ll reserve you a seat in case you decide to come; as my guest of course.’ He doffed his hat and strolled away with the dog close by his heels.
‘Cor miss, he fancies you - a toff from up west,’ Robert said, 'what the 'ell was he doing in this bleedin' dump.'
Margaret had been wondering the same thing herself.
After school, she returned to her digs. The hall stank of her landladies’ evening meal offering; it smelt like mutton broth, no doubt swimming in grease. She climbed the dingy stairs to her room. She sat on the bed looking at the brown faded pre-war wall paper and feeling home-sick. She could picture her parents: Dad sitting in front of the fire reading the paper and Mum bustling around in the kitchen, making a palatable meal out of nothing much. Her stomach rumbled, the entire lonely weekend stretched out in front of her.
She took the card out of her pocket. The invitation to the restaurant was so tempting; she read the name, Cyril and then a double-barrelled surname. Just at that moment a waft of rancid meat odour slid insidiously under the door of her room and she made her decision. She opened her wardrobe. Mum had been a seamstress before she married Dad, and thanks to her skills, they had all been well clothed during the war. Mum had run classes for people, sharing her expertise. She'd kept abreast of fashion trends too. The wedding dress she had made for Dora had been a triumph. There wasn't much call for posh frocks in Cardiff, but Mum'd made this one for her to wear to Eric's graduation ceremony six months ago. Fashioned from hazelnut brown taffeta shot with golden highlights, it was the remains of a pre-war ball gown. She knew it mirrored the colour of her eyes. It was modest and understated, but also in vogue. It was her only choice. Margaret pulled it off the hanger.
On the way out, she met her landlady in the hall.
‘Yer looks a picture, yer dinner’s ready.’
‘It smells,’ Margaret searched for a diplomatic word, ‘interesting, but I’ve had a surprise invitation to dine out – I hope that’s not a problem. I didn’t have time to tell you.’ The older woman’s face softened.
‘You go and ‘ave a good time me duck. I’ll save yer stew fer tomorrer after you’ve trailed round all them mewseums and that like yew does on Saturdays. Mind you ain’t too late back. I’ll leave the door on the latch fer yew just in case, I’ll be listening out till yer gets in.’
The restaurant was plush, the lighting low, and she could hear a pianist playing classical music on in the background. Margaret hovered, still indecisive, on the threshold. The maître d’ loomed.
‘Can I help Madam?’ she sensed a slight hint of aggression in his tone.
‘This lady is part of my party, Antoine.’ Her knight in shining armour appeared again. He was dressed in an immaculate dinner jacket. Minus the trilby, he was slightly balding and he had a neat moustache; she hadn’t noticed that earlier. His smile was warm. ‘Got over your upset?’
‘Good, come and meet my friends. I think you'll like them, but I also think I should know your name first!’ Three people were already seated at the table.
‘This your mystery guest, Cyril?’ one of the men quipped.
‘This is Margaret everybody. Margaret, this Irish idiot is Jack, this is John, the three of us met at Oxford, and this is an old family friend of mine, Bubbles. She’s getting hitched next week. Up here buying stuff for her trousseau, so you girls will be able to talk knickers and frills if you get bored with us men.’
Cyril pulled a chair out for her, and she sat down next to Bubbles. She was a very beautiful woman, dressed in elegant silk cream; her hair arranged to perfection, a cloud of expensive perfume surrounded her. She looked every inch a lady; she smiled a warm welcome.
‘Welcome fellow female, I hope you aren’t another bloody writer.’
Speechless, Margaret shook her head.
‘Thank goodness for that! They drive me mad when they get together, just listen to them.’
‘What are you working on at the moment, Cyril?’ asked Jack.
‘A biography of Sir Clowdisley Shovell. He was an admiral, for you philistines who aren’t interested in history.’
‘Can’t you write fiction, instead of having your head in the past – fiction is the way to go. You don’t deserve to be a member of the Inklings.’ John retorted. ‘I’m still writing my Hobbit story.’
‘Bloody hell,’ Jack replied, 'Hobbit? What kind of a creature could that be, John?’
‘You’ll just have to wait and see, I based it on Cyril, somebody who skulks in a hole most of the time, living in the last millennium.’
‘That name, “Cloudsley Shovel” – The perfect name for the mole in my current story,’ mused Jack.
'Go ahead! I bet you spell it incorrectly,' remarked Cyril.
‘You aren’t still writing about that magical country of yours, are you Jack – what is it called? Narnia? You tease me about mythical creatures, and you’re writing about talking animals and worse! I thought you wanted to make money from your work,’ John retorted.
‘It’s far too religious Jack,’ Cyril intervened, ‘what happened to being an atheist?’
‘I’m not a prude.’
‘Prove it,’ said John. ‘Write something risqué, a sonnet or something.’ Jack reached forward and grabbed Margaret’s menu.
‘Right. I will.’ He produced a pen and began scribbling.
‘There you go darling,’ he handed it back to her, ‘look after it, evidence for future Inklings that I’m not a religious freak, even if I have gone back to my Anglican roots.’
The verses were very rude; they were signed C S Lewis.
Bubbles peered over her shoulder,
‘Naughty, naughty Jack.’ She wagged a finger at him, and turned her attention back to Margaret, ‘See what I mean? They squabble all the time, no better than toddlers. That’s his real name; they call him Jack for some reason. Cyril has had far more published than the other two so far, that’s why they tease him so much. How do you know him anyway?’
‘I don’t. A chance meeting today. I had a bit of a problem; he was very kind.’
‘He would be. He’s a lovely man but a word of warning, if you’re going to get involved; he comes with a great deal past history. Now what are we going to eat?’
Margaret regarded the signed menu in her hands, it was in French; that wasn’t a problem for her, but she was totally out of her depth as to the protocol involved. She tried to catch Cyril’s eye, but all three men were deep in some academic debate.
‘Chosen yet?’ Bubbles asked.
‘It all looks so delicious. How do they manage all this with the rationing? I just can’t decide.’
‘Me neither, tell you what, why don’t we ask Antoine to choose for us? He’ll know what’s especially tasty tonight. We’ll choose for the men too, shall we? They won’t notice what they’re eating.’ She clicked her fingers, and the maître’d appeared at her elbow. After the order had been decided, Antoine disappeared as silently as he had appeared. Realising that she had sensed her unease, Margaret smiled with gratitude at Bubbles.
‘I’d love to hear all about your wedding plans, where are you getting married? My sister got married last year.’
‘At home in Devon, in the little village church. I hope we’re going to be able to shoehorn everyone in.’ by the time the starter arrived, they were deep into details of the dress, bridesmaids and caterers, and giggling like schoolgirls.
At the end of the meal, they all sat and talked for a while; the men attentive now. When the conversation turned to politics, Bubbles began to yawn,
‘Time for bed I think.’ On cue, Antoine appeared again,
‘Your car is here Madam.’ Bubbles stood,
‘Cyril, it’s been delightful.’ She turned to Margaret, ‘I’ve really enjoyed talking to you, I’m sure we’ll meet again.’ She gave a secretive wink, and left in a rustle of silk. Jack and John left shortly afterwards too, and Margaret found herself alone at the table with Cyril.
‘Have you enjoyed yourself?’ he asked.
‘Very much. You’re right; I did like your friends. Bubbles is great fun.’
‘One gets used to them! Now how about you? I know nothing about you except your name, and your ability to lose large numbers of children.’
Hours later, Margaret realised the restaurant was empty except for the two of them, and several tired waiters hovering around the edges of the room. The candles on the table were guttering stumps.
‘Gosh I must go. I’ll miss the last bus.’
‘I think you already have.’ Cyril raised an arm and beckoned a yawning Antoine, ‘A taxi for the young lady please.’
When it arrived, Cyril opened the door for her.
‘How about dinner again soon, just the two of us?’ Margaret smiled,
‘I’d like that very much.’
Cyril thought for a moment,
‘I’ve got to work tomorrow morning - this morning now! I know it’s a Saturday, but we’re a bit behind. You can come and watch if you like, and then we’ll drive out of town and find somewhere to eat.’
‘Watch what? Sounds intriguing.’
‘Wait and see. I’ll pick you up at ten.’ Cyril turned his attention to the driver, ‘You’re to take the lady to this address in the East End. Drop her right at her door and ensures she gets inside safely.’
During the journey Margaret fiddled with her purse, counting every penny and hoping she had enough to pay. The taxi stopped outside the steps of the digs.
’Ere you are luv.’
‘The gent paid Miss, while you were powdering your nose. Tip an’ all, sides I wouldn’t have charged you anyways. I knows who you is - made a ‘uge difference to our Robert you ‘ave.’
The following morning, promptly at ten o’clock, a shiny black Ford Prefect pulled up by the kerb. Cyril got out and opened the passenger door for her. Margaret looked back at her digs; she saw the net curtains twitch at the parlour window, and her landladies' beaming face peeping out.
The little dog she remembered from yesterday was sitting on the back seat of the car.
‘I hope you don’t mind him, it’s a long day for him at home by himself.’ Margaret reached back and smoothed the little spaniel’s soft head,
‘I love all animals, but especially dogs. What’s he called?’
‘Tolly.’ On hearing his name, the little dog pushed his way between the seats, sniffed Margaret, and then settled himself firmly on her lap.
‘Where are we going?’ Margaret ventured.
‘The studios. We’re filming a story called ‘The Mudlark’ It’s about a boy from the East End who gets involved with Queen Victoria and Disraeli. That’s why I was in your neck of the woods yesterday. I was putting final touches to my research - ensuring all the finer details are correct. That little lad in your class, he sums it all up. Too late now, but he would have been perfect for the part of the boy. We should finally get it in the can today.'
‘Do you act as well as write?’ Margaret asked in surprise. Cyril laughed,
‘Heaven forbid! There’s been a lot of critism of recent historical films for lack of accuracy, and with good reason. I act as an advisor, making sure all the details are authentic; they make some glaring blunders.’ They drove into a car park.
‘D'you mind looking after Tolly? It’s too hot for him in the car.’ The dog followed her obediently as Cyril ushered her to a row of canvas seats. ‘You should get a good view of proceedings from here.’ Margaret clutched Cyril’s arm in excitement,
‘Gosh, I recognise so many of these people from the cinema.’ Cyril was distracted.
‘Oh goodness, not again! - How many times have I told you not to wear that bloody wrist watch on set Alec! Take it off now and go and get a pocket watch and chain from wardrobe.’ He turned back to Margaret, ‘I’ll have to go. I hope you won’t be too bored. Bubbles said she might pop in at some time.’ Margaret watched enthralled for the next two hours as the cameras rolled, and takes and retakes were done of various final scenes of the story.
At lunch time Bubbles arrived and slumped into the seat next to her,
‘Thank God for that, I’ve had my final fitting for my dress, and I’ve managed to pack my mother and all my stuff on the train to Devon. I’m exhausted, but I’m determined to have my last few days of freedom. I’d a hunch you might be here, so I thought I would pop in and say hello. Great fun isn’t it?’
At that moment Tolly pulled on his lead. Margaret looked round to find a woman crouched down, caressing the dog's silky ears.
‘Hello Tolly, where’s your master?’ Margaret’s jaw dropped open in awe,
‘Weren’t you in “The Wicked Lady?” I went to see it with my sister. My Mum would’ve been furious if she’d found out- we thought it was brilliant.’
The actress looked Margaret up and down.
‘Who are you?’ Bubbles began to giggle,
‘Allow me to afford the introductions. Margaret, this is Margaret Lockwood – Margaret meets Margaret!’
Utterly bemused, Margaret looked from the now helpless Bubbles to the stony faced actress.
‘Grow up Bubbles,’ the woman said, 'I came to find Cyril. He stood me up last night, a telephone call with some story about a night out with his university cronies. Oh there he is.’ She walked off.
Bubbles dissolved into paroxysms of mirth again. Eventually she gasped,
‘She’s a genuinely lovely lady, and I’ll have to phone her later and apologise, blame my behaviour on pre-wedding nerves or something.' She sat up. 'They met on the set of the "Wicked Lady" just after his first marriage broke up. They've been dating on and off ever since. I told you last night he came with a past. There's a lot more.'
'What do you mean? Are you warning me not to get involved?'
'Not at all. Quite the reverse in fact. Cyril needs someone like you to look after him: intelligent but with their head firmly based in reality. He'll tell you the other stuff when he's good and ready. Just think, you’ll always be able to tell your offspring that their father dropped the famous Margaret Lockwood to date you.’ She began to laugh again.
Margaret glanced at her watch.
It was exactly 24 hours since the children had disappeared over the air raid shelters.
They drove down the day before the wedding. Through the Berkshire countryside, past Wiltshire’s downs and Stonehenge, and then to the rolling red banks and pastures of Devon. Margaret felt nervous. Mum had done her best to come up with a suitable outfit for a society wedding, but she still felt uneasy. She glanced at the gilt edged invitation that was lying on the dashboard,
"Lord and Lady Semington-Reeves request the pleasure of your company at the marriage of their daughter Beatrice…’
There was a flamboyant hand written note at the end. Do come, Squirrel. George is longing to see you. Bring a friend of course. Sylvia.’
‘Here we are,’ said Cyril as he turned the Ford into a private driveway.
Margaret stared in awe at the landscaped parkland. A herd of deer were sheltering in some dappled shade. At the end of the road was a stunning gabled mansion, its many windows glinting in the sunlight. Cyril’s description had been a little understated.
‘You said it was a country house!’ She gasped in horror, ‘I can’t stay here.’ Cyril laughed,
‘Why on earth not? I do.’
‘But I’m not – I don’t know how to.’
‘They are just ordinary down-to-earth people like you and me. Most of them are as mad as hatters. Just be yourself, they’ll love you.’
He parked the car between a Bentley and a Rolls-Royce.
‘I’m interested to see how the restorations have gone. The house was used as a hospital during the war. Sylvia did sterling work here and George was working at the naval headquarters in Bath.'
Margaret needn’t have worried. The front door was wide open. The house was in turmoil. There were people scurrying everywhere carrying trays of cutlery and flower arrangements. A tall aristocratic looking woman was standing at the foot of the stairs, watching the proceedings with an air of slight bewilderment. She spotted Cyril.
‘Squirrel! How nice to see you. It’s chaos as you can see. All these temporary staff. George has retreated to the Library in disgust together with a whisky decanter. He’d love some sensible company. She turned to Margaret. ‘Welcome my dear, whoever you might be. Beatrice will show you to your room - if I can find her that is. Can you manage your own bags?’ A loud crash and the sound of breaking china emanated from somewhere behind them. ‘What on earth was that? I hope it wasn’t the Sevres. I’d better go and find out. Don’t bother dressing for dinner darlings – if there is any that is.’ She rushed off.
‘See what I mean?’ said Cyril. ‘Just be yourself.’
‘At last! I’ve been watching out for you.’ Bubbles was running down the stairs. ‘Cyril, be a darling and go and distract Daddy. He’s like a bear with a sore head. He's been looking out some old maps he wants your opinion on. I’ll look after Margaret.’ Bubbles led the way through an ornate orangery and out into an enchanting garden.
‘I can’t tell you how pleased I am to see you. I’m fed up with sycophantic aunts cooing over my dress, and school friends braying false congratulations. I can’t wait to get back to London and sensible people. I'll show you the marquee. We’ll go and get your bags, and then you can tell me what you really think of the preparations. Then I suppose we'd better go and organise some supper, nobody else will.’ She squeezed Margaret’s hand. ‘I’m glad he chose the right Margaret.’
The evening proved to be great fun. Margaret had never laughed so much. There was an eclectic mix of guests, an impromptu party grew and spilled on into the early hours. By the time she surfaced the following morning, yesterday’s riotous mayhem had been replaced by dignified order. The house shone, with no sign of the evening’s celebrations. Breakfast was all laid out on heated silver salvers in the dining room, and guests drifted in and out.
Margaret and Cyril walked the short distance through the grounds to the village.The red sandstone church sat timelessly in the midst of tombstones and yew trees. The interior was a decorated with a floral extravaganza of white and green. Jasmine wound its fragrant way around the columns as if it had grown there. Everything was light and fresh. The sun shone in through the ancient stained glass windows adding splashes of rainbow colour and optimism to the wedding day. Bubbles looked stunning as she walked up the aisle on George’s arm to meet her groom. The little bridesmaids were enchanting.
The marquee in the grounds was unrecognisable from the day before. People must have been working far into the night. Tables groaned with succulent seafood, delicate canapés, and vast tossed salads. The wedding cake towered majestically as a centre piece.
Margaret tried not to think about rationing.
They were handed glasses of champagne and shown to a table by a white gloved waiter. Somebody tapped Cyril on the shoulder,
‘Could you come for a moment? Squires is longing to talk to you. It’s not so easy for him to negotiate crowds since he lost his legs.’ Cyril grimaced at her,
‘Old school chum. Caught a packet on D-Day. Will you be ok for a few minutes?’ she nodded.
Sitting back in her chair, she enjoyed observing the guests. All sorts of things going on. Social and political undertones. Cyril was right. These people, with such wealth and power and fame, were the same underneath as her own family or those of the children she taught. The problems were the same: tangled relationships, dramas and lost limbs. Hidden stories. They were all just as vulnerable to the vagaries of life as she was.
Last night’s chaos had been no different to the scenes in her Cardiff home the day before Dora’s wedding. Just on a different scale.
She felt goose-bumps rise on her arms at the realisation and some kind of premonition made her shiver.
‘I’m told I’m to sit here.’ A plummy Eton voice invaded her thoughts. She looked up to see a tall, swarthy-faced man standing next to her. She guessed he was about the same age as she was, possibly slightly older, mid to late twenties perhaps. His penetrating blue eyes were half-masked by thick black eyebrows and his nose was almost beaked in shape. There was something eagle-like and predatory about him. She knew she had never met him before; yet there was something familiar about him.
The goose bumps rose further. She indicated a spare chair. He shook her hand.
‘Charles, and you are?’
‘How do you know the family?’ he questioned, ‘I recognise most of the usual culprits - but I’ve not seen you before. I’ve been working abroad.’
‘I don’t know anybody really. I’ve met Bubbles – Beatrice that is, but I’m here as the guest of a family friend.’
‘Who’s that then?’ he asked.
‘His name’s Cyril, he writes history books. Do you know him?’
‘Oh yes,’ he paused and drew out a silver case from his pocket, ‘Oh yes, I know him, and I know all about his history.’ He offered her a cigarette. Margaret shook her head. He shrugged, tapped the end of his on the case, turned and ducked his head out of the breeze that was blowing though the tent to light it. Cyril returned and she smiled a welcome. He kissed the top of her head, and sat down.
‘I’m so sorry, poor Squires; I hadn’t seen him since he was wounded. I hope you weren’t feeling too lonely.’
‘Not at all. Charles here has been keeping me company.’ Charles straightened up and stared at Cyril. Cyril’s face went chalk white. Charles stood and with frosty formality said,
‘Hello, Father. Charming young companion you have with you. I only flew in from America this morning – unexpected business in London. I’m glad I got here when I did, before it was too late. Are you going to speak to your only son after all this time?’
His tone oozed sarcasm.
Just at that moment somebody announced the departure of the bride and groom. The guests trooped outside to wish them well. Bubbles looked radiant in her going away outfit. She waved at everybody, winked at Margaret and turned her back. Her elegant bouquet of creamy lilies, gypsophila and white freesias flew over her shoulder and through the air. It landed in Margaret’s arms.
She knew then that her fate was sealed.
Charles’ eyes met hers again and this time there was no disguising the hatred. Unwittingly, she had made a powerful enemy.
The ghost of the fighter pilot appeared again, and this time she had no idea who the victor would be.