FAR SIDE OF THE OCEAN
Copyright © 2016 Hilary Murray All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously.
The Bordello Girl
For Brett and for Beth
Copyright © 2016 Hilary Murray All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously.
The Bordello Girl
For Brett and for Beth
Dilys could never work out why so many blokes loved their ale when the stink from the brewery over on Queen Street was enough to put anyone off the stuff for life.
“Bloody hell,” she grumbled, swabbing the top of the mahogany bar, “when the wind’s blowing this way the pong gets right up yer nose.”
Couched down on his haunches her husband hooked another four bottles of India Pale Ale from the wooden crate alongside him and thrust them to the back of the empty shelf.
“It’s just the malt,” he said. “That, and the hops cooking.”
“Think I don’t know that after all these years?”
Wisely, he remained silent.
“Still don’t get why it has to smell so bad,” she went on.
Seeing he was more interested in sliding, jostling and chinking more bottles into place she straightened. “We having this conversation or not?”
“Seems that way. Not that I can see why though, ‘cause there’s nothing to be gained from it.”
“Look, it’s an observation, that’s all,” and fixing the back of his head with a withering glare, she added, “like I might mention the weather we’re having. Or the amount you’ve been supping lately.”
Grasping the edge of the counter Jim hauled himself to his feet. “Man’s entitled to a spot of relaxation after a long day.”
“A long day? You wouldn’t know one of them if it leapt up and bit yer. Besides, you need to realise it’s our hard-earned profits you’re throwing down your neck.”
She regretted the words immediately they were out of her mouth. Not from any sense of foreboding since in all the years they’d been married – and that was more than she cared to remember – he’d never laid a hand on her, never even come close and he could have done, a bloke of his size. She thanked her lucky stars for that. Some women got hidings so bad they couldn’t leave the house for days. Black and blue they’d be. She wouldn’t stand for it herself, but then she wouldn’t have picked anyone with a temper in the first place. Not if he were the last bugger on earth. So no, she shouldn’t have come down hard on him. It was hardly his fault after all.
Swiping a strand of hair from her forehead with the back of her wrist she splashed water into the sink, and dunked and wrung out the cloth.
The writing had been on the wall since the war ended, not that you’d have known it at first. But a couple of years later the economy began sliding downhill, and after that, the Royal Naval Dockyard started laying men off. Being the city’s largest employer, that affected everyone one way or another. In hindsight they should have got on with the improvements the brewery suggested – not that they were going to cough up a penny towards it, God forbid – like replacing the cracked tiles either side of the public bar door and tarting up the sign between the two upstairs windows. Even putting a lick of paint on the window frames might have helped. Problem was, it wouldn’t have ended there. What about the peeling wallpaper? Or the damp in the gents lav? Start one thing and the list becomes never-ending, and while it didn’t seem worth spending the time at first, it was money they were short of after that.
What they needed was the clientele of the better establishments down on the Hard. The dockyard supervisors and gaffers and Naval senior rates; anyone in fact who could count on having a job next week. Not the officers, of course, she wasn’t given to dreaming and from what she’d heard they were no longer spending up big anyway. Trouble was, how could a gloomy back-street boozer entice that trade? No, they were well and truly stuck with what they had; regulars who could barely scrape enough together for a second pint. Nor did it help that the soft lummox she’d married had become a little too free with the tick of late. She’d had to bite her tongue a few times, but she was keeping an eye on things and that was why, at the first sign of a few bob in a man’s pocket, she was leaning over the counter quick-sharp and having a quiet word about a certain unpaid account. It usually did the trick.
There were no two ways about it, their chance for better things was long gone. And why? Because these two bars – one a public, the other behind etched glass and timber panelling for the old biddies with their stout and Sergeant O’Brien who, regardless he was still in his police uniform, couldn’t make it home without a nip of Bushmills – suited Jim Doherty nicely.
For until recently he hadn’t an ambitious bone in his body.
It had to be said that despite the bee he’d got in his bonnet, she and Jim had been a good match. They’d lasted the course, hadn’t they? And there was no getting away from the fact he’d been a looker back in the day, despite her mother complaining he was too thin. ‘Bony,’ she sniped, ‘not an ounce of meat on him.’ And, ‘one puff of wind and it’ll be all over.’ Dilys had seen only gentle eyes and lustrous dark hair swept back with a dab of grease, then nudged forward into a rakish wave. Other’s had noticed too, not that he’d ever taken advantage, he wasn’t the sort. Twenty-seven years later he still wasn’t bad looking, once you got past the softened jowls and the wildly tufting eyebrows the girls were always threatening to trim. And what about her? Did he ever consider how nature had fashioned her over the years? If so, he never said. The loosened skin under her upper arms had appeared without her noticing. The lines around her eyes and mouth had been a different matter, and she’d a drawer full of creams that had promised so much and delivered so little. Nor could she do a great deal about her graying roots, other than have them regularly bleached. And those were the changes he’d be aware of. There were others, things she couldn’t tell him. Things that left her staring at the ceiling some nights. But what was the point in dwelling on stuff she could do nothing about? Better to concentrate on what was important, like finishing what she was doing, then giving the mirrored-backed shelves behind her a quick once over. Or could that hold off until tomorrow? She’d rather have a sit down; she knew that much. Get the weight off her pins for ten minutes before opening up time.
“You realise we’ve been here eleven years?” she said, tipping the stale contents of a slop tray down the sink. “Gawd help us. Eleven years in this rat-infested hole. The Saracen’s Head? More like the Saracen’s arse if you ask me. We should have moved on years ago. Got out of Portsea and gone up in the world.”
“No one was stopping us, doll.”
“So why didn’t we?” she wanted to know.
“Timing I suppose. It just never seemed right.”
He was sizing up a half empty shelf of Brown Ale.
Giving the brass tray a flick with the cloth she glanced over. He was frowning at the painted wooden shelf above the till, and the precise rows of Woodbines, Players and Gold Flake cigarettes. Now what? Was he thinking of fetching up a few more packets from the locked cupboard in the cellar that safeguarded their stock of spirits and fortified wines? Forget the expensive stuff, she wanted to tell him, it’s loose tobacco and another lot of Rizla papers needed. If he didn’t already know customers were trying to eke out the cost of their habit, one look at the mush of soggy yellow-brown butts in the ashtrays and spittoons would soon tell him. Most were no thicker than a matchstick.
“Trouble is, girl,” he said all of a sudden, “nothing’s cut and dried anymore. Can’t count on anything. ‘Specially not from the brewery.”
Here we go again, she thought.
“Look,” she said, “it’s not the end of the world. Like I keep saying, we should – argh!” her face contorted, and dropping the tray into place and still clutching the cloth, she screwed a raw-knuckled fist into the small of her back.
Jim winced but said nothing. It was as if he knew better.
“Mary, Mother of God!” she groaned. Then, having counted to twenty continued through gritted teeth, “We’ll talk to the bosses again. See if they’ve found another place for us yet.”
“And if they haven’t?”
“Then we’ll keep on doing the same as now.”
Shaking her head, she concentrated on the pain in her back. Willing it to dull, so she could get on with the last of the trays. She’d be done for the morning then.
But he wasn’t finished.
“For how long?” he wanted to know.
“For as long as it takes. For God’s sake Jim, what choice have we got? Anyway, for all you and I know, it might never happen.”
“What? You think they’re going to change their mind about knocking this place down?”
“I don’t know what they’re going to do. And neither do you.”
“I know one thing. They won’t leave it standing. Not even as a tribute to the working class drinker. No, you mark my words, girl,” he said, though in a more resigned tone. “Once these streets are rubble, everyone’ll be gone. Including us.”
“The dockyard will still be here and blokes’ll still want to get a pint on their way home.”
“Not if they’re living outside the city.”
“But they won’t all be outside the city,” she argued, head lowered and leaning on the counter. “Some’ll still be here. Stands to reason.”
“Good job one of us has your optimism.” Reaching down for the empty crate he hoisted it up. “Funny really. All these changes because of one woman.”
“Not again,” she groaned.
“You have to admit, no one bothered us before.”
“How many times…?” her knuckles were still pummelling her back. “Look, she didn’t ask to be murdered, did she?”
“Course not, but had she still been alive the do-gooders wouldn’t have been round to poke their noses in our business. And you could argue from that there’d be no talk of clearance either.”
“You don’t get it, do you? Some nutter killing Brighton Mary didn’t bring the council around here. It’s these pokey alleys and courtyards, they’re slums. In fact, they’re worse than that. They’re disease ridden just like half the people living in them and the sooner they get pulled down and proper homes built, with running water and electricity, the better.”
“But that’s just it. How do we know they’re going to build houses again? What’s to stop them building factories or warehouses, or whatever else takes their fancy once they’ve shifted everyone out. Either way, there’s going to be a lot of changes.” Focusing on the window as if half expecting the demolition ball to come crashing through at any moment, he added “and once they’re gone, our customers won’t be back.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Of course I do. They’ll be out in them new council houses in Hilsea.”
She’d had enough, for when he got on his high horse there was no stopping him. “I give up. What’s the point fretting when we don’t know for definite what’s going to happen? I’m going for a cuppa. You want one?”
Hitching up his trousers he shook his head. “Nah. I’ll finish bottling up first.”
“No pulling a swift half behind me back.”
“Give it a rest!”
“After all these years I know you better than I know myself, Jim Doherty,” she threw over her shoulder.
“Before you go…”
She’d barely reached the curtained doorway.
“…you given any more thought to us emigrating?”
She’d known he’d been leading up to this and when she turned back he’d plonked the crate on the counter. One elbow perched on it, a fingernail was prising dirt from beneath his thumbnail.
“You know my thoughts. I think it’s a crack-pot idea,” she said. “Why New Zealand? What wrong with here? If we have to, we’ll just go further out like everyone else.”
“I want something better. For all of us.”
“At our age? Are you stark, raving mad?” she wanted to say. But seeing his expression, she checked herself.
“And you reckon this something is on the other side of the world?” she said instead.
“Won’t know ‘til we try.”
“But Jim, listen to yourself. You’re talking about uprooting us. Your family. Taking us away from everything we’ve ever known. And for what? A dream? A whim?”
“It’s more than that, doll. A new life in the empire could be the answer to our prayers.”
He’d stepped forward as if doing so would strengthen his case.
She shook her head. God, he could be so pig-headed when he wanted. “You know Ruby and Lil aren’t interested. And what about Alfie? He didn’t spend all those years on an apprenticeship for nothing. He’s well on his way to being a skilled tradesman. With prospects,” she emphasised. “You know that.”
“I do. But what’s to say the dockyard doesn’t lay him off in the meantime? Look,” he added quickly, no doubt caught off guard by her ferocious look, “I don’t want that any more than you do. But we have to face facts. Life’s been getting harder and harder round here. Nothing’s written in stone anymore.”
“He’s got a good job, and a solid future.”
She too could be obstinate when it suited.
“In that case, it’ll be just us and the girls.”
Her tone was incredulous. “You mean you’d go all that way without him? I don’t believe you!”
“I had to find my own way in the world when I was his age. No one mollycoddled me.” Pulling back his shoulders, he puffed out his chest as if waiting for someone to pin a medal on it. “Besides,” he added, with what he no doubt hoped was a reassuring smile, “he might come out later, once he and Alice are wed.”
“Oh yes! And pigs might fly! Her parents would never approve. And what if they’ve got kiddies by then? Which they will have. How can I be expected to live in one place when they’re in another? You listen to me, Jim Doherty. I need my family about me. All of them.”
“We’ve got family out there too, don’t forget.”
She had to give him credit, he was standing his ground. But he was also riling her up good and proper.
“Your brother?” it was her turn to step up. “And when was the last time you saw him?”
“You know when girl. When he left.”
“That’s right. Nineteen-nineteen. And after that? Nothing! How many letters has he sent? How many Christmas cards? Even your old ma doesn’t hear from him anymore.”
“It doesn’t change the fact he’s my brother. And you know the saying, blood’s thicker than water.”
“I give up. New Zealand, indeed.”
“I’m going to write to him tonight,” Jim called to her retreating back.
“Know his address, do yer?”
“No, but ma does.”
“Good luck to that.”
“Does that mean you’ll think about it?”
But she’d already disappeared.
Like the rest of The Saracen’s Head, the dingy kitchen was nothing to write home about. The linoleum was worn through in places, the paintwork a bit rough, and no matter how much she cleaned, a faint smell of mildew hung in the air. The rug beneath Jims battered armchair by the range gave the place a lift though, and then there was the glass fronted cabinet in the corner. The only decent bit of furniture in the room, never mind it was already second-hand when she’d bought it. Jim had asked what on earth she was going to put in it.
“China of course.”
“We got any?”
“We will have. When you put your hand in your pocket.”
Setting the kettle on the gas stove, Dilys was worried. This emigrating lark, well, it was alright for some. But not her. Nor Jim if the truth be known. Heaven’s above, New Zealand! He might as well suggest they went to live on the moon! And while she didn’t know the first thing about the place she knew it would be nothing like Portsmouth. No neat rows of houses, no pub on the corner. And where on earth would she get fresh milk or a loaf of bread when needed, let alone a bit of gossip?
The idea didn’t bear thinking about.
Why couldn’t he be happy with her suggestion they find another place right here in the very city she’d been born in? The same one he’d been drafted to all those years ago when he was in the Navy? It was where they’d met and married, and made their life. And if not for all those reasons, then for the fact it was the only home the kids had ever known.
But she already knew the answer. Local drinking holes in mean streets of two-up-two-down houses might be thick on the ground in a port that had serviced His Majesties Royal Navy since Noah was a boy, but so were those queueing to tenant them. And that gave the brewery the upper hand. Not that she was expecting special treatment, regardless they’d always paid their rent on time and never put a foot wrong. But still, she doubted they’d any chance at a place like the brewery’s latest jewel in the crown. Recently built out at Eastney, it had a smart frontage and a carpeted saloon bar – Axminster, she’d heard, which meant they were spending a bob or two. On the other hand, would she want the worry? Given it was a new venture the bosses would likely be turning up every five minutes, demanding to look over the accounts or tally the stock. Jim wouldn’t appreciate that one little bit. And starting from scratch would mean hard work, regardless of all the new-fangled labour saving devices they’d supposedly put in. Kitty over at the New Inn said everything was electric, and there was even a separate office for the landlord to do the books without anyone looking over his shoulder.
‘An office, can you image that,’ she’d said, one hand under her elbow as she puffed on her cigarette. ‘What’s wrong with the kitchen table, that’s what I’d like to know.’
Dilys sighed. If she wanted to talk Jim out of the notion of leaving England, she’d have to come up with a better idea than applying for that particular tenancy. And sharpish.
With the kettle whistling, and after warming the pot and spooning in Ceylon tea, she filled it with boiling water. Ruby’s one and only attempt at knitting, a garish red, green and yellow cosy, was slipped over the spout and handle and snuggled around the belly.
There wasn’t just one thing to be taken into account either, she thought, settling back to wait. Alfie for instance. Wherever she and Jim lived, he and Alice should be within walking distance, for if anyone thought their son wouldn’t want a pint with his father every now and then they were sadly mistaken. That’s what fathers and sons did. Put the world to rights over a mild and bitter. On top of that, she had no intention of missing out to Alice’s mother when it came to grandchildren. The woman already had half a dozen, thanks to the way her eldest popped them out on a regular basis, and that meant she certainly wouldn’t have time for Alfie’s as well.
And then there were the girls.
It was important for Lilith to be close to that school she taught at. Not that there was anything wrong with the corporation’s bus service but waiting around at draughty bus-stops in winter brought on any manner of ailments, everyone knew that, so why invite trouble?
Ruby was another matter altogether since she hadn’t found a job yet. At least, not one she liked enough to go back the following day. It didn’t help she never had her nose out of a fashion magazine either, but times had changed and things were different for girls these days. Even she could see that. At fourteen she’d been handing over a pay-packet to her mother and getting pennies back for her trouble. Ruby would take to her bed for a week if she were forced to do the same! It had to be said though, her daughter had a mind of her own and a good idea of what she wanted out of life. Wasn’t she already on the lookout for a husband – not that she or Jim were supposed to know – nor could it be denied she’d get one soon enough with her looks. If only she’d wait a little longer. What was the rush? Still only nineteen, once she’d taken that journey down the aisle there’d be no more shopping and fancy clothes. Not with a softened belly and swollen breasts. And if she’d set her sights on a sailor like just about every other girl round these streets – and please God, make it a Petty Officer or someone with a bit of aspiration – she’d be bringing up her babies alone for the most part. It would be a hard life.
But she wouldn’t be told.
Lilith, on the other hand, never gave any trouble. At least not in the same way. But all that spouting off about women’s rights and labour policies wouldn’t get her anywhere in the long run. And time wasn’t on her side. Another couple of months and she’d be twenty-three, and that meant if she didn’t pull her head in soon it would be too late. Of course, she could spruce herself up a bit. Take a leaf out of her sister’s book and work on her appearance. Then she might stand a chance. But with a shortage of good blokes out there she had to get a shift on or she’d lose out altogether.
Fetching her favourite cup and saucer, the only survivor of a pair given her and Jim as newly-weds and used only when the mood took, she poured a dribble of milk from the jug kept on the cold shelf in the larder and added two heaped spoonful’s of sugar from a silver plated, ornate handled bowl. That too had been a gift to mark the occasion, this time by her mother’s sister who, despite her upbringing, managed to marry above her station. Well-to-do and snooty with it, no doubt the intention had been for her contribution to stand out from all others. It had.
Holding the strainer over the rim and pouring the tea that had stood brewing for the last few minutes, Dilys thought how different their three children were. Lil was Jim all over again, another dreamer, while Alfie and Ruby were the practical ones, like her.
Surely it couldn’t be that hard to come up with a solution for everyone? She’d put her mind to it once Christmas was out of the way. It would be her New Year’s resolution.
February in Portsea was always grim and standing at the kitchen window, elbow deep in suds, Dilys stared out at the sodden hooped barrels and stacked beer crates. For days now and with no let-up, rain had been splattering into bloated ale-flecked pools and the yard was awash with gritty water. Worse, the hint of a breeze as she’d darted out to the lav at first light hadn’t meant a change in the weather at all. Rather it was a cruel joke, and the cloths and towels she’d quickly hung out, draping them over the thin rope that stretched from one brick wall to the other, were sopping.
She wondered why she’d even bothered.
She ought to nip out and get them all in. Put the whole lot through the mangle and chuck them on the clotheshorse in front of the range. Didn’t mean they’d be dry in time for opening though.
On top of that, her belly was playing up again. She wasn’t sure which was worse; the cramping or the chronic back ache accompanying it. Not that there was much point complaining, not at forty-four. Old age was knocking and even the devil couldn’t keep that door closed.
“Still giving you gyp, is it?”
The change to the licencing hours bought in by a war-time coalition government and never repealed, that a landlord could only open his premises from midday to two-thirty, and again from six-thirty until nine-thirty at night, meant Jim was settled in his armchair, his waistcoat unbuttoned, his shirt sleeves rolled back, his legs stretched out to the range, and his feet encased in the plaid slippers Lilith had given him for his birthday.
“It’ll get better in New Zealand, you’ll see,” he said.
Dilys closed her eyes. “Oh, will it? And how’s that going to happen then?”
There was the familiar rustling of a page being turned. “Because it’s warm there. Do your aches and pains a load of good.”
“And how do you know it’s warm?”
“Stands to reason, doesn’t it? It’s on the other side of the world. Like Africa. And you can’t say it ain’t hot there.”
“You don’t know the first thing about the place.”
The newspaper rustled again.
“I know one thing. It’s the cold here that’s doing you in. That and the rain.”
“So it doesn’t rain in New Zealand then?”
“Of course it rains. How else would anything grow? But not like here. All this damp and drizzle. That’s what’s plaguing you.”
“Nothing to do with being worked to death then.”
She didn’t move. Just stood there, staring out at the gray yard and the washing on the line. Saturated and listless and dripping.
“I can’t believe you’re still going on about it,” she picked up the thread of conversation again.
“Can’t see as why I wouldn’t be. Nothing has changed here as far as I can see.”
“So what’s it been now?” she spoke as if the question was rhetorical. “A couple of months? And you’re still pinning your hopes on a reply from your brother? You even said yourself Ma wasn’t sure she had the right address anymore. Suppose he didn’t get your letter? Then what? You going to sit around forever going on about it? Anyone else would have seen the light ages ago. But not you.”
The newspaper shook. Another page turned. “He’ll reply. Mail doesn’t get to New Zealand and back over night.”
“But why should he? Let’s be honest, you might have been brother’s once but after all these years? You as good as strangers now.”
Another page turned. And another.
“I think you’re mad, you are,” she went on, gripping the edge of the sink as yet another cramp seared her insides. “And it’s not only me who thinks so. Even the kids believe the idea of emigrating is ridiculous. You know that.”
“They’ll come around.”
“Not this time, they won’t.”
“What’s wrong with you?” Her tone was frayed, her breathing not quite under control, and not only from the pain tormenting her back. “Why won’t you see what’s under your nose.”
“And what’s that, doll.”
“That when you weren’t looking, those three grew up. They’re adults now, with lives of their own. You can’t tell them what to do any more than I can.”
“I’m aware of that.”
She wanted to scream. No, worse than that, she wanted to grab him by his shirt-front and shake him until his teeth rattled. “Then listen to them.”
“I intend to.”
“That’s not how it sounds.”
Reaching up on top of the cupboard she closed her fingers around the amber glass bottle.
“Look, they’re none of them daft,” he was saying, “and I accept it might be a bit hard at first, being a new country and all that. But nothing comes easy in life. Any fool knows that.”
“So why even think about it?” she said, tugging on the stopper and taking a swig.
“Because it’s our one chance to get ahead.”
He was reaching for the half-smoked roll-up smouldering on the rim of his ashtray when she finally gave him her full attention.
“You don’t believe that any more than I do.”
“You’re wrong, doll. Take a look around you. We live in a slum, in the worst part of the city. A slum that’s going to be razed to the ground any day now and that means everyone we know, our neighbours, our friends, will be gone. The entire community moved out one by one to places some of them have never even visited. Not even as a kid. We’ll be strangers, all of us, strangers in our own town.” Fingers curled around the home-made fag he put it to his lips. “And even if you think you can live with that,” he said, inhaling and exhaling long and hard, “what am I going to do for work? The brewery hasn’t exactly been forthcoming, has it? And let’s be honest, they’ve had plenty of time these past months to make us an offer. So let’s assume for one minute there won’t be another pub. What have you in mind for me to do, should we find ourselves in one of these new-fangled houses the council is building? I’ve no trade and no experience of anything other than pulling pints and keeping a tidy cellar.”
“There’ll be something.”
Balancing his roll-up on the rim once more he said, “Like what? Come on girl, who’s going to employ me at my age? Especially when there’s already hundreds out of work. And they’re not all old codgers like me either. They’re young blokes. Strong blokes. Blokes who can do a full day’s graft without taking a breath.”
“There’s more to a job than brute strength.”
Dilys took a moment to breathe through the ache. Another ten or so minutes and the foul-tasting concoction would have kicked in. Then she’d be fine again.
“Being good with customers for one thing,” she managed. “Handling money for another. People want employees they can trust.”
“And if I can’t find anything, because let’s not forget those jobs aren’t thick on the ground, that what? You really want to see me joining the ranks of the unemployed and drawing the dole, my signature in exchange for a weekly handout that’ll barely feed this family, let alone pay the bills?”
“It won’t come to that. Anyway, Ruby’ll help. She’ll get a job and it’ll be another wage coming in.”
“Oh, so now I’m to rely on charity if I want the odd pint or packet of fags?”
“You know I didn’t mean that. You’re giving in too easily.”
“No, doll. I’m being realistic. Like you need to be.”
Retrieving his newspaper, he shook it and found his page.
“I think you’re wrong about the kids,” he said eventually.
“I think once it’s all explained to them, they’ll see trying our luck in another country might be a good thing all round. And don’t forget, we’re not the only ones. Hundreds are leaving every month with the same thought in mind. And not only for New Zealand but for Australia and Canada as well.”
“Really!” she couldn’t keep the scorn from her voice.
“Uh huh. Sam Rudkin’s boy went to South Africa. Doing very well by all accounts. Even owns a motorcar, or so his old man says.”
“Well, that’s one then. Know anyone else from around here living the life of Reilly in the Dominions?”
“The Marshalls. They went to Canada. And they haven’t come back.”
“You ever thought they might not be able to afford the fare?”
“Or it could be they’re settled and happy.”
She eased from one foot to the other, shifting her weight and contorting her spine ever so slightly. “Still think it’s a stupid idea.”
“I know you do. But I think it’s worth the risk.”
“And you’re going to try and talk everyone round?”
“And how on earth are you going to do that?”
“By starting with the voyage, and the magnificent ocean liner we’re going to be sailing on.”
“What…?” she stared. “What ocean liner?”
“The one getting us to New Zealand of course.”
She was gawping at him.
“Calm down woman,” he was reaching for his roll-up again.
“Calm down? How do you expect me to calm down?” Pain forgotten, instead she couldn’t believe what he was saying. “You haven’t really, have yer? Tell me you haven’t gone and booked our passages without waiting to hear from your brother? You have, you’ve gone and done it, haven’t yer. I know you. How could you do such a thing? You knew how I feel about it. And to think I swallowed all that rubbish about moving out to Cosham or Hilsea, or wherever. Because that’s what it was, wasn’t it? Pure and utter baloney to tug at my heart strings. Well, Jim Doherty, you’ve pulled some fast ones in your time, but this takes the biscuit.”
“No one’s booked any passages yet. Like you said, we need Joe’s reply first. Have to hear what he has to say,” and he expelled a stream of smoke in the direction of the ceiling. “On top of that, we both know if he agrees it’s the right thing to do, there’ll be a whole lot of paperwork to get done first. And no doubt a few hoops to jump through as well.”
“Then what did you mean about the ship?”
“I’m just thinking we should all take a trip to Netley. Have a picnic and make a day of it. We could invite Alice too.”
Had he taken leave of his senses?
“A trip out? In this weather? It’s bleeding freezing outside if you hadn’t noticed.” It was a good job she didn’t have anything to hand with which she might hit him. A rolling pin or a wooden spoon. Either would do. “And then what? You expect us to sit on the grass while one of them big steamers sails past on its way down the Solent, all bunting and brass bands and waving from the decks?” she shook her head. “And that’s your big idea?”
Turning back to the sink she plunged her hands into the water and brought out a cup, which, after a cursory glance she placed upside down on the wooden draining board.
“You live in a dream-world, you do,” she muttered just loud enough for him to hear.
“I can’t show them where we’re going, but I can show them how we’re getting there. Might put things in a new light,” he said.
“Might not, as well.”
“It’s as good a place to start as any.”
“Still don’t know why you want to start at all.”
The newspaper slapped the arm of his chair. Then a loose spring twanged as he stood. Coming up behind her, he slipped his arms around her waist and leaned close.
“Imagine you and me on a big ship, girl. All dressed up at the Captain’s table.”
Her back twinged, and holding onto the sink she bit her lip.
“Good looking woman like you,” he went on, “you’d be the star attraction. Turn heads, you would.”
“Not looking like this I wouldn’t.”
“I’ll buy you a dozen new outfits,” his breath was warm on her neck. “Skirts, blouses, dresses, you name it. All as blue as cornflowers. Same as your eyes.”
She couldn’t help smiling. He’d always been a one for flattery. Knew just how thick to lay it on, too.
“And how are you going to manage that?”
“Got a little set aside for a rainy day.”
“You never told me.”
“Been saving it up to spend on you, girl.”
“Get away with you.”
But the magic was working.
“There’d be dancing every night. In a ballroom. You know how you love a bit of a shuffle, girl. Remember? You and me?” and with his lips nuzzling her shoulder, and his groin pressed against her bottom, he swayed and hummed a few bars of some long ago tune. “And walks along the deck in the moonlight. Think of it. All those stars in the sky. More than you’ve ever seen in your life.”
“And how would you know that?”
“You’re forgetting, I’ve been to sea.”
“Three years,” her eyes were closed and with her head back against his chest she breathed coal tar soap and tobacco. And a whiff of the ale he’d had at lunchtime. “That’s how long you lasted in the Navy. Three short years. The way you tell it nowadays you were Admiral of the Fleet.”
“Who knows, girl. I might have been if it hadn’t been for poor health.”
“Poor health be buggered. You pulled a fast one to get out.”
As if wanting to make the most of her good humour he’d snuggled even closer. “Only because I wanted to be with you, doll. Not have us spend years apart.”
“And who benefitted from that? ‘Cos it certainly wasn’t me,” she managed.
“How can you say such a thing?”
“Easy. From the day you put a ring on my finger I’ve worked each and every one of them to the bone for you.”
“Sounds to me like you’re playing hard to get.”
She was a little breathless, for his lips were nibbling and sucking just below her ear. “Should’ve played harder back then if you ask me.”
Oh God, it had been ages since they’d last mucked around. Ages since either of them had bothered with the other. They managed the odd quickie when he’d had a little too much to drink of course, but that was just leg over and on with it.
This was what she missed. The closeness. The oneness.
“You always did like me chasing after you,” he whispered into her hair. A hand was cupping her once proud breast. “I remember you flirting with other blokes when you knew I was watching. You liked it when I was jealous. You were a shocker, you were.”
“I did no such thing,” she felt herself blushing.
“Oh yes you did. What about Joey Dawson? You only had to click your fingers and he’d come running.”
“That was a long time ago. And it wasn’t my fault if someone took a shine to me.”
“Of course not. Though it wasn’t without a little encouragement.”
“Ohh, that’s a terrible thing to say!” but there was no outrage to the words.
His hand was sliding down over her belly, pressing gently and she sucked in her breath.
Not this. Not yet. Couldn’t he just hold her a little longer?
He was inching up her floral pinafore, ruching it as he went. Next he’d be working on her skirt. Then his hand would run up her leg, the fingers splayed and lingering on the metal clasp and thick elastic of her suspender before savouring the expanse of warm flesh between stocking top and girdle. And when that wasn’t enough, he’d move on, blindly but surely.
“For heaven’s sake Jim, what are you thinking?” She twisted out of his grasp. “Anyone could walk in. Ruby’s in her bedroom. What was to stop her coming down?”
He’d stepped back, but he quickly recovered and holding out his arms again, waggled his eyebrows suggestively. “You’re right doll. Let’s nip upstairs, out the way.”
“You must think I came down in the last shower, Jim Doherty,” she said, her hands flat against his chest. “I know what you’re after. And a bit of what you’ve got in mind won’t make me any keener to go to New Zealand.”
She couldn’t look at him. Instead, knees trembling, she turned and leaned on the chipped and stained sink again.
“And don’t forget, I’m having my hair done at four,” she added. “So you’ve got plenty of time to get down that cellar and give it a good going over before opening.”
The bedroom overlooking the backyard might have been the largest of all three, but with two brass beds and Aunt Maud’s heavily embellished mahogany dressing table and wardrobe taking up so much space it was standing room only. The single window didn’t offer much relief either, even at the height of day, for the light penetrating the heavy lace curtaining brought a dismal tinge with it. Of course, it was different in summer when finding its way between neighbouring rooftops the sun lifted the room’s decoration from a flat and dreary lilac to a warmer rose-pink. But with the long winter days clinging on it was as much as Ruby could do to lean into the into the oval mirror and tilt her head while shifting a lamp this way and that, all in the hope of highlighting her best features.
“I really don’t know why you’re bothering. It isn’t like mum’s going to let you out.” Hunched into her pillow, Lilith barely glanced up from the page she was reading. “She’ll catch you the moment you try to sneak out the back door, and then you’ll be for it, dressed like that.”
Transforming each heavily plucked eyebrow into a perfectly shaped arch with a few deft strokes of her pencil Ruby considered any number of acid-like responses in return. But no. She would treat the remark with the contempt it deserved. Though why her sister had to be such a damp squib all the time she’d no idea. Of course, it could be something to do with the lack of a boyfriend, though for heavens’ sake whose fault was that? Just look at her, dressing gown tucked around her and hair twisted up in a towel. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen her in face-powder or caught a trace of perfume on her wrists. It wasn’t natural. And she was pretty enough after all, so why didn’t she make the most of what God had given her like everyone else did? It wouldn’t be difficult, for she’d got a heart-shaped face to die for, not to mention a complexion that had never seen a spot or a blemish, not even at that time of the month.
More to the point, why couldn’t she be like Elsie’s older sister and get her into places she shouldn’t go and introduce her to deliciously wicked men? Some might call her obsession with her job and her politics a tad selfish, all things considered.
Instead, she said, “We’ll see about that.”
But it appeared Lilith had more to say.
“I just don’t understand why you always make life hard for yourself. You know what mum says about short skirts and loose women.”
Ruby tightened her lips. “This is hardly short. Anyway, everyone’s wearing hemlines that finish just below the knee these days.”
“She won’t like your jumper either,” her sister came back. “She’ll say it’s too tight.”
“Well that’s just too bad, Miss Snidey. Bert likes it, and that’s all that counts.”
“Bert? Is that the one on HMS Repulse? Or is that Stan? Sometimes I just can’t keep up with all the men in your life.”
“Then don’t. Leave me to my business and you get on with yours.”
Uncapping a tube of plum-red lipstick and twisting the base Ruby turned back to the mirror and with three or four strokes transformed her lips into a flawless cupid’s bow.
“I can’t help it if I’m popular,” she said, checking to ensure the colour hadn’t bled on her teeth.
“Some might call it something else.”
“Is that a note of jealousy I hear from the old maid in the corner?”
“Hardly. But really, you should do things to please yourself, not other people.”
“But didn’t you just say this is all for Bert?”
“I can’t see there’s any difference.”
“Then you do have a problem.”
“Not as far as I’m concerned.”
Lilith’s book closed with a thwack. “Oh Ruby, can’t you hear what you’re saying?”
“Yes I can. Loud and clear, thank you very much. What I want to know is when are you going to realise there’s more to life than staying in night after night studying?”
“I would say that depends on the future I want.”
“And I’m more concerned with the present.”
“And what’s that supposed to mean?”
“Live for today, for tomorrow we die. Isn’t that the catchphrase?”
Her patience was wearing thin. “You think you’re so clever sometimes.”
“No I don’t.”
“Well, that’s how it sounds.”
He sister sat up, hugging her knees. “Your life could be so different. You could so easily make something of yourself if you really wanted to.”
“Why would I want to do that?”
“So Bert’s the one, then?”
She had to contain her temper. “And suppose he is? What’s wrong with that?”
“Nothing. If you’re sure.”
“I am. And even I wasn’t, I’d still marry him. The good ones don’t hang around you know. Someone like Bert knows how to treat a girl, and that means she would never have to work, though why she would even want to when he earns good money I wouldn’t know. So it may not seem like it from where you’re sitting, but my life is just tickety-boo, thanks.”
“No, you don’t. You don’t see anything.”
“I know you and I live in two different eras. Your dependence on a man is positively Victorian. When are you going to take a good look around you? We’re in a new world now.”
God, she could be so annoying at times Ruby thought, wondering what it would take to wipe that smug look off her face.
“These days you can so easily have a fulfilling life of your own,” her sister was continuing, as she had on so many other occasions. “Women everywhere are forging ahead and embracing their right to independence –”
“Yeah, yeah, and casting off their shackles. Get off your soapbox, Lil! Not everyone wants to be a spinster for the rest of their lives.”
Lilith didn’t seem at all put out. “Well I’d rather be in charge of my own destiny than tied to a man for all the wrong reasons.”
“You’re forgetting one small detail. In order to have a husband you have to be asked first, and last time I looked I didn’t see a long queue for your hand in holy wedlock. Actually, I didn’t see any queue at all.”
“And that suits me just fine.”
“How would you know when you haven’t had much experience in that direction. In fact,” and leaning her pert little bottom against the dressing table she put a theatrical finger to her cheek and frowned, “I can’t remember any bloke asking you to walk out with him recently. Other than Reggie Harper, of course. And he’s so desperate he wouldn’t care who he was with, just so long as they were breathing.”
“Don’t be cruel. It’s not becoming.”
“Wasn’t me who started it.”
Turning away she reached for her small cardboard pot of Bourjois rouge and dabbed furiously with the soft cotton puff.
She’d overstepped the mark, of course, but it was so easy to do. Not that her sister deserved to be treated that way, but why couldn’t she understand that not everyone wanted to be like her? Some just wanted a normal life.
Feeling a tad guilty she said, “Anyway, I do love Bert.”
“Then I’m pleased for you.”
“And…” she decided to take her into her confidence, “you never know, I think he might propose soon.”
“Gracious. I had no idea it was that serious.”
“Well it is.”
“Does mum know?”
“Don’t be silly! Of course not!” she felt her smile fade.
“Well, you’ll have to tell them.”
“I know. And I will, when I’ve got something to say and the time is right.”
“Have you made any plans?”
“Only that it’ll be a long engagement.”
“He’s sailing soon, that’s why,” and she sighed as if she carried all the world’s problems on her shoulders.
“A few weeks.”
“Oh. Will he be away long??”
Suddenly it was all too much. “Oh Lil, he’s going to the Indian Ocean. That’s miles away. And it’s not just his ship. There’re others going as well. How am I supposed to cope?”
“Time will pass. You’ll just have to keep busy.”
“But I’m not like you. I’m not interested in books and studying.”
“There are plenty of other things you can do.”
“Like what?” Accepting her sister’s outstretched fingers, she dropped onto the bed.
“Well, you’re certainly needed here. Mum’s having a lot of trouble with her back these days, and you could take on some of her workload. I’m sure she’d be pleased with the help.”
“She’s got you for that. When you’re not at school, that is.”
“But I haven’t always got time. I’ve got lessons to prepare and studying to do. I’ll never get a decent position if all I have is my preliminary certificate. I’ve got to get into college and sit formal qualifications if I’m to have any chance of proving my proficiency in the classroom. You know that.”
“You don’t think you’re being a little selfish?”
It was meant as a joke, but it obviously wasn’t taken that way. Her sister’s eyes had widened in outrage. Nudging her with an elbow Ruby added quickly, “Dad always said out of all of us, you were the one with the brains. You know we’re all proud of you. Oh, Lil,” her fragile mood was ebbing fast, “at least you’ve got your teaching. What have I got? I want to do something exciting with my life while Bert’s away.”
Lilith must have decided to forgive her, for she answered, “Like what?”
“I dunno. That’s the problem.”
“You could always find a job. That would help pass the time.”
“A job? That’s your solution?”
“I can’t think of anything else. Though to be honest even that isn’t easy anymore. Not many businesses seem to be hiring, though I suppose you could always go into service. It would mean a lot less freedom than you have now, of course. And don’t forget Dad’s talking about New Zealand, so going through the whole rigmarole of applying for interviews might be pointless anyway.”
“Oh lord, let’s not even think about that. I couldn’t imagine anything worse than starting out all over in some foreign backwater, and that’s saying something. No, if I’m to have any happiness over the next year, it’ll be because I’ve made a drastic change to my life.”
“Such as what?”
She’d just thought of the most perfectly thrilling idea.
“I’ll go and live in London.”
“London? Good grief! Why London?”
“It’s the place to be. Everything happens there. Don’t you keep up with any of the gossip?”
She could already see herself at the Kit Kat club in the city’s West End. Champagne would be flowing and she’d be wearing fabulous jewellery and an outrageously expensive costume of gold thread and beads. Or being wined and dined by her latest admirer in a swish restaurant. She’d be the focus of everyone in the room. And the men! Oh, she’d be surrounded by them. All terribly good-looking of course. And royalty too. She pulled herself up short. Well, perhaps not a duke or anything. A viscount maybe. Even so, he’d have a yacht in Monte Carlo and a sumptuous apartment in Italy for when he tired of his aristocratic pile in the Shires.
“You can no more go and live in London than I can go and live in Russia.”
“Well, let me see.” Lilith held up her thumb. “First, you have no job, a minor detail I know, but without a good income you can’t afford to live anywhere. Second,” her forefinger came up, “we don’t know anyone in London, and you know what mum’s like for worrying. And third,” her middle finger uncurled, “you’re only nineteen.”
“I’m nearly twenty,” she retorted.
“Not for another seven months. And even then you wouldn’t be allowed to go.”
“I would if you put in a good word for me. Mum thinks you’re sensible.”
Resting her chin on her knees Lilith gave a wry smile. “I know. Not exactly complimentary, is it?”
“Oh Lil, you know what I mean. And you would stick up for me, wouldn’t you?”
“No. Not this time.”
Her resolve hardened. “In that case, I’ll do it without your help.”
“And how will you do that?”
“I’ll run away.”
“Send me a postcard when you get wherever you’re going,” Lilith snorted, unfolding her legs and retrieving her book.
“I might just do that.”
Flouncing, she got to her feet. Why she bothered trying to be friends she’d no idea. It was hardly worth it half the time.
“So where are you and Bert going tonight?” she was asked a moment or two later, and recognising an olive branch when she heard one, she softened a bit.
“Not sure. Probably for a stroll along the Esplanade. But don’t tell mum. She thinks I’m popping over Elsie’s.”
Lilith was rolling her eyes. “I don’t believe you sometimes. Well, you’d better wrap up then. And if you intend to get as far as the pier, wear a decent pair of shoes. Last time you had blisters the size of duck eggs thanks to your friend’s heels.”
It was just as well her sister’s nose was back in her book, for she’d no idea how close she’d come to the truth. Had she glanced up the whole game would have given away, for regardless she wasn’t allowed anywhere near South Parade Pier at night, the Carlton Dance Band were playing in the Pavilion and that was exactly where she and Bert were going. Blisters or no blisters.
“I know. But it’s the style these days. Low heels in the mornings, high at night. Anyway, they make me took taller – and thinner,” she gushed, hoping at the same time she wasn’t opening herself for another lecture on accepting herself as she was, flaws and all. “I’ll be getting my own pair as soon as I’ve saved up enough, and in the meantime…” she flashed the back of an ankle where newly attached sticking plasters could just be made out beneath her nude stockings. “Look. Should do the trick.”
“Only you would come up with such a thing.”
“I try, sister dear.”
“You know you’d have your own stuff a lot sooner if you didn’t spend every penny the moment you get it. It seems to me you’re keeping Woolworths and Boots in business all by yourself.”
Turning back to the mirror Ruby pulled on her hat.
“I can’t help it if I want to look good,” she said, tweaking her newly bleached waves into place. “After all, one of us has to.”
“Gawd Almighty, you gave me a scare!”
Having stepped into the alley, Ruby spun around, one hand still on the gate latch, the other clutched to her chest. “What on earth are you doing here? I thought we were meeting round the corner.”
The uniformed sailor in the navy cap, ribbon slewed so that rather than sit at the side the tiddly bow was over his left eye, took a long drag on his cigarette before flicking it into the gutter. “We were. Thought I’d save us a bit of time,” he grinned, pushing away from the wall and offering his arm.
“Bloody hell,” she swore, “what if someone had seen you?”
“But they didn’t,” he said, a little too carelessly for her liking.
“But they might have,” she argued back.
Hustling him to the end of the alley she told him of the brush she’d just had with her mother. Far too close for comfort, she’d been caught at the bottom of the stairs with her mother wanting to know where she was going.
“Over to Elsie’s,” she’d lied, trying for a haughty is this really necessary tone.
“Dressed like that?”
Stuck on the last but one linoleum tread and with her mother forced to look up, she should have had the advantage of height.
It didn’t feel that way, though.
“I am taking my coat.”
“I should hope so. Otherwise you’d catch your death in that outfit. Run out of wool, did they?”
“This is how it’s supposed to look,” she’d said, tugging at the sweater’s dark green ribbing. “It’s all the fashion.”
“Really? Looks more like you’re advertising your wares to me. And what will you be doing round Elsie’s?”
“Nothing much. Go for a walk up town probably.”
Her mother waited.
“And look in the shops,” she finished, the answer sounding lame even to her.
“Just as well they’re closed then. And I see you’re still wearing her shoes.”
Would she ever stop finding fault? What about the skirt? Or her hair, trimmed and lightened only that afternoon? Or her lipstick? Or anything else for that matter.
“Does her mother know how she spends the money she gets from working at the bakery?”
Ruby shrugged. “Probably.”
“Somehow I doubt it. I can’t see her being let out in anything like what you’re wearing.”
“Well, she does.”
“Don’t give me any lip, young lady.”
Knowing the threat was real she’d had to look away. Pushing her mother any further could so easily mean she’d be kept in. And that was the last thing she wanted.
“I expect you home by ten-thirty,” her mother turned away. “Don’t be late.”
Hurrying over to the row of hooks behind the back door Ruby first pulled on her scarf.
“Don’t wait up,” she muttered under her breath.
A mistake in hindsight, for her mother called back, “That’s exactly what I will be doing. Ten thirty on the dot, or I’ll send Alfie over to fetch you.”
The stench from the communal toilets and overflowing dustbins didn’t usually bother her, nor did the general decay and slovenliness of the place, but it didn’t mean she was comfortable dragging Bert through the depressing labyrinth of alleys and crumbling brick courts with bleak faces peering from cracked windows and doors wedged permanently ajar. Rather she was all too aware of it, and her pace didn’t slacken until they’d emerged onto St Georges Square. Then, believing they were far enough from the unwanted attention of anyone who might know her or frequent The Saracen’s Head, she slowed to a provocative swing and fluttered her eyelashes.
“Have to say you’re keen, turning up on my doorstep like that.”
She shrugged. “Suppose not. Though you’d better not make a habit of it.”
“Thought you might appreciate it.”
“What if my mum had popped her head out the gate for some reason? Then what?”
“I’d have said a polite good evening and charmed her with my light-hearted conversation.”
“Oh, Bert! You are a one!”
“Won’t do it again if you don’t want me to.”
“It’s not that…”
“It’s alright. Only meant to save us a bit of time.”
“Hmmm. You did, did you?” her eyes travelled in any direction but his. “Time for what, that’s what I’m wondering.”
“Time to be with my girl.”
Though it was no more than she expected to hear, she simpered. “So I’m your girl, am I?”
“Don’t I keep telling you?”
“You might tell me…” she said before shrugging as if perhaps it didn’t matter after all. Though it did of course, since her hopes were pinned on him being the one.
“Oh,” he said, “you want me to show you.”
“Maybe. A girl likes to be sure of these things.”
“Then I’d better try harder.”
His expression, as dark and mysterious as any film star’s, sent a delicious tingling through her. As if she were at the fairground on one of those rides that took your breath away, even as you clung all for all it was worth.
“You are a devil,” she said, giving his elbow a squeeze.
“And you love me for it.”
Right there on the pavement, he stopped and spun her towards him.
“Only maybe?” and lowering his head, he touched his lips to hers.
She thought she’d die with the sheer pleasure of it. But this wasn’t the time or place for any malarkey and he should know that. Middle of the street indeed! Coming up for air she gave him a little shove. Not hard enough to push him away, more to emphasis she wasn’t that kind of girl.
“Bert! Not here!”
“Thought you liked a bit of a cuddle,” he said, his arms still about her.
“I do, but not in public. Someone might see us.”
Pressed up against his regulation serge jumper her cheeks were warm. “I don’t know. One of our customers perhaps.”
“And we wouldn’t want that, would we?”
“Not if they went straight round home and told my mum.”
“You win,” crooking his finger Bert tilted up her chin, “but only for now.”
This time his kiss was a little more chaste.
Ruby tried to hide her delight. She and her tall, handsome Naval rating might have only known each other a few weeks, but she loved it when he was all masculine and in charge. That was why she tottered and blushed when loosening his grip, he drew her arm through his once more.
Had she been asked, she would have said that as well as height Bert possessed two other things she found so necessary in a man; broad shoulders and a powerful chest. The attraction had been instant, and why she’d agreed to have tea with him that day in Southsea when she and Elsie had been oohing and ahhing at the latest fashions in Handley’s window and he and his shipmates had emerged from The Osborne public house on the other side of the road.
Crossing over he’d come up behind them.
“Ladies,’ he’d grinned, sweeping off his cap. “May we offer you an escort?”
Having given him the once over, Elsie’s eyes had widened appreciatively. Ruby though was made of sterner stuff.
“I doubt you’re in any fit state to steer a true course,” she said, and having matched his cheek with her own, thought she’d flummoxed him.
But far from it.
“I’d say that would depend on the helmsman,” he replied, his eyes dancing in the most wicked way.
The wink that followed had been her undoing.
Now, easy in each other’s company and with his long pace shortened to hers, they strolled towards the fortified sea walls at the harbour’s entrance. Past rundown townhouses, the once elegant pediments, fanlights and cornices testament to better times. And shiplap cottages three stories high, yet little more than eight feet wide. Past a red-brick reform church and a soberly painted board displaying just three lines of services, and around a drunk spilling out from the dingy public house next door, waving and shouting farewells to those still inside. From somewhere a dog barked, no doubt agitated by the sudden commotion. A woman shouted and the yapping ceased, only to start up again a moment later. And all the while flickering, eerie-green gas light pooled over chilly cobbles and gutters of stagnant water.
“I have to say, you look good in uniform,” she complimented him.
“Yeah. Can’t say that for every bloke. It’s because you’re tall. It sort of sets everything off.”
“So it’s not the colour then?”
She frowned. “The colour?”
“Navy blue. You reckon I’d look just as good in pink, do you?”
“Perhaps not,” she giggled.
“Well, I’m glad I pass muster.”
“And what about me?” the question floated on the air.
“Yes, me!” and nudging him in the ribs with her elbow, she swung against him.
“Can’t see much of you under that thick coat.”
“Well, if you take me somewhere warm, I might undo a few buttons.”
“Is that so?” lifting an eyebrow he grinned. “Best I take you somewhere hot then.”
“Bert! You say the wickedest things.”
“Only to my girl.”
“So you keep saying, but how do I really know?”
“What? That you’re my girl? I’d have thought that was obvious.”
“But you know what they say about matelots. A girl in every port. I’m sure a good-looking bloke like you is no different.”
“You know me better than that, Rube.”
“I should hope so.”
He said no more, and she looked away. Seemed like pushing a man towards a proposal wasn’t going to be as easy as she’d thought, though why it should be that way she’d no idea. Wasn’t a wife what every man wanted, after all?
She’d have to try a new tack.
“I wish you weren’t going away,” and she sighed in a way guaranteed to tear at the hardest of male heart-strings.
“I wish I wasn’t too.”
“You need a regular job, you do.”
“Thought you liked me in uniform.”
“Well then, can’t have it both ways.”
That hadn’t got her very far.