April 1934, 75 Pyrcroft road.
The sharp ‘Ding-a ling’ of a bicycle bell rings, together with a shout that is almost drowned by the noise of six young children hurriedly eating their porridge, almost as if it is a race. Outside, sitting on their bikes are Charlie Weguelin’s workmates, all anxious to cycle the three miles to the Airscrew Factory.
Deirdre, the eldest child , looks up and watches her father fumbling with his buttons. Her Mother, Ethel, is there tucking his scarf around his chest. He must keep warm; he has been off sick with the ‘flu, for the last two weeks. The disease has left him still a bit groggy, but he needs to earn some money—no work, no money —no money, no food! Another shout comes from outside, more urgent this time.
“Come on Charlie, it’s getting on, we’ll have to get a move on”.
The family have all been laid low with this epidemic—as have most of the local families. It is not as bad as the ‘flu of 1918, but it’s still bad enough. There’s yet another shout from outside. He quickly kisses his wife and waves to the children. They hardly look up from their porridge, apart from Deirdre, who gives him a smile. She and her Dad have the special bond that the first born always seem to have. Her gaze lingers on the closing front door. She hears the clatter of his bike and the snap of the gate latch as he joins his mates, still calling for him to get a move on.
Her mother wipes the steamed up window and watches the group of men disappear around the top of the road. She turns to start readying the children for school, a well-rehearsed drill, each child helping the other. They are quickly dressed and through the same front door and on their way to school-it is all like clockwork.
The two young boys are making a racket, Donald, just over three years old is teasing his younger brother, so near in age are they, as to be taken for twins. Ethel hears The Airscrew factory hooter, calling the men to work, Charlie will be there by now. She turns to look at the clock, and she feels a slight shiver, as she sees the neat pack of sandwiches on the dresser. Smiling, she puts his lunch on the cool marble slab in the larder. He will cycle back at midday, there will be the clatter of his bike against the fence, then she will see his sheepish grin as he passes the kitchen window—this is not the first time, and probably not the last.
Lifting the boys down from the table, she sits them on the little seats on the hearth fender to keep them warm. Now the school bell is ringing, the four older children will be safely filing into school, it is nine o’clock.
But then, there was another bell, the mournful bell of the grave yard, first a muffled tone then a full one. Another funeral, another ‘flu victim, one of many in recent weeks.
She pauses for a moment, poor Mrs. Thompson, and that young boy in Cowley Avenue, just a street away, the same age as Bernard, and more still, up the top of the town. Another shiver, more intense this time, as she thinks how easily it could have been them. She slowly does the sign of the cross—not a thing that she has ever done before-both she and Charlie have always been free of any religion. She looks down at her two younger boys, and thinking aloud, says “Should I have let Bernard go to school?”
Pulling herself together, she grabs the huge pile of washing from the table. Today is washday. She fills the copper tub that is built into the corner of the scullery, a handful of soda, a quick stir with the copper stick, then a match to light the fire.
First goes the newspaper, but not before she sees the Head-line—’More ‘flu deaths in London’—she quickly piles on some wood and puts the match to the paper and watching the head-line burn away. She works quickly now, as if to change the subject of her thoughts. The first load are the white sheets and towels, then the coloureds.
Now best of all, some bread on a long fork, toasting so quickly on the flaming wood it burns. Donald is licking his lips at the thought of some dripping on toast.
Ethel sits back in her favourite armchair, green velvet with lovely curved mahogany wood-work, a hand-me-down from Charlies family, as was the huge picture of ‘The Charge of the Light brigade’. On the dresser, next to the sandwiches, was the green alarm clock, a wedding present from her sister Tina. She winds it up and sets it right to St Peters Church bell, it’s already ten O’clock.
Looking around the kitchen, she sees the dust that had laid there for these last few weeks, now with the early sunlight streaming through the window, highlighting the steam and smoke from the copper as it drifts slowly across the room. She thinks of spring cleaning—not today though, perhaps next week.
Through the kitchen window, she sees Mrs. Salmon, as usual she’s carrying a cake, and coming around for a chat and a cup of tea. They have been friends for the last six years, since they each moved in to their newly built council homes, just two doors apart. They take turns to make the tea and have some cake most mornings.
Rosy Salmon is a very large lady, her full face always blushed with the effort of just being so big. Her name, Rosy, was well chosen. Ethel opens the kitchen door, her friend comes through with a huff and a puff, with one thought on her mind, to sit in that lovely green chair—the so-called ‘Rosie’s chair’.
“Hello Effie, is it me or it very warm today”?
She takes aim at the green arm-chair and drops into it with a sigh, the puff of dust flying from it joins the smoke and steam caught in the sunlight. The poor old chair, it’s no wonder the castors are broken.
“There’s a nice seedy cake for you Ethel”.
The tea is made and they settle down for the local gossip. Of course, the subject for today is the very thing Ethel was trying to avoid, there had been another poor soul taken from their family, an old lady from Ruxbury hill, no one knew she was ill and she lay there for days.
“That wouldn’t happen around here, would it? we know everything that goes on”.
She laughs at the comment she has made, but it is quite true. They drink their tea, Rosy twists the cup around so that she can read the tea leaves, something she does with every cup of tea she drinks, for once she does not say what she can see in the tea cup.
Realising Ethel is a bit quiet, she searches for something to say.
“Do you know Effie? I have never seen how you spell you name”.
Ethel is relieved for the change of subject.
“It is spelt just as it is pronounced, Weg-ue-lin, it’s a a German name, and some people do have trouble with it, so I just say its Waglin, most people know it like that anyway”.
Rosy laughs, “I don’t know about it being from Germany, Effie, it sounds more like Chinese to me”. The chatter stops as they hear the sound of a bicycle clattering against the fence, Ethel is first startled, and then she smiles.
It must be Charlie. Perhaps the ‘flu has closed the propeller factory, and all the workers had been sent home. She quickly put the kettle back on the hob as she goes to the back door.
There is a gentle knock on the front door, leaning back to see who is. Rosy says. “It’s the front door, Effie”.
She sees a policeman standing at the door, for once her cheeks lose their blush. It was a few years ago during the war, that the same Policeman—then a young PC—had knocked at her front door, he had a telegram saying that her husband was missing.
The policeman is joined by Doctor Ward. She knows a policeman and a doctor calling at the same time can only mean one thing, an accident. Rosy looks again at the tea leaves she has been reading in her cup—it’s always bad luck for someone—but she hopes that today, it’s not this house.
Ethel, not knowing what is unfolding at the front door, still smiling and now thinking it is Charlie coming home for his sandwiches. She picks up the youngest child and goes to the front door.
“What is he doing coming to the front door”?
Her smile fades, as the door opens and standing there is not her sheepish looking husband, but Doctor Ward, the family doctor.
The words she was about to say are smothered, a visit from our Doctor was not expected, then she sees the Policeman standing to one side. They look at each other for what seems an age. The Doctor takes the child from her and they step in-doors, still without saying a word.
Rosy stands up for Ethel to take her seat, young Donald climbs onto his mother’s lap, it’s as if he senses something is wrong. The doctor takes Ethel’s hand, stumbling, trying to find the words that he must say.
Scarcely breathing, Rosy puts her hand on Effie’s shoulder, hoping against hope that she will not hear what she thinks she may hear. She looks on as her friend, now wide eyed with fear waiting for what the Doctor will tell her.
But it is Ethel who is the first to speak, she whispers.
“Is it Bernard”?
The Doctor, quickly needing to put her mind at rest, at least about her children, said.
“Ethel, all your children are safely at school, but I have some very bad news for you”.
She looks at him, trying to make sense of his words and at the same time not wanting to know.
The Doctor takes some pills from his bag, knowing that there is no medicine that will dull the pain of what he is about to tell this young woman, just thirty-five and with six children all born within the last twelve years.
He speaks with a tremor in his voice.
“Ethel there’s been an accident.”
Rosy, waits, for once with nothing to say, and now the tears falling from her cheeks, fearing what will be said next.
He is finding it hard to find the words but they finally come to him.
“Ethel, I’m sorry to tell that your husband has been in an accident and I’m sorry to tell you that he did not survive”.
The doctor passes the tablets and a glass of water.
Sgt. Reynolds, hardened to hearing the saddest of stories, finds this just too much to bear, he lifts baby Alan and walks into the scullery. Doctor carries on.
“Charlie would not have suffered it would have been very sudden”.Ethel is sitting still, not believing what has just been said, it must be a mistake. Rosy looks away, through the window she sees Mrs. Phillips, standing at her gate, drying her hands on her apron—today is every-one’s washday. Mrs. Hyde joins her, they stand and wonder, first a policeman now a doctor, what could be happening? They are soon joined by three or four more friends, all gathered around Ethel’s gate, with the same question, what has happened, who could it be? Not one of those lovely children