Malta- March 1949
It was, Dorothea realised immediately, the stuff of stories, and the story might just be the contemporary romance her publishers kept asking for. The last of the sunlight cast a golden glow on the stone walls of the little courtyard, and the damage to the top of one of the walls suggested a few ideas. Nancy saw where Dorothea was looking.
“This bit was shared between two houses.” Nancy said. “You can see where there was another door in the wall, but it’s been blocked up with bits of what was left of the other house.”
“Is the wall climbable?” Dorothea asked.
“Absolutely not.” said Jane. “Mummy and Daddy said not. Not on any account, because there’s a big hole on the other side. You might fall down and break your neck and die. ”
“And no sweeties for you.” Julia added, cheerfully.
“Grown-ups don’t eat sweeties.” Jane said.
“Let’s go and eat supper.” said Nancy. “Nina will be wanting to go home to her parents.”
“Is Daddy coming home tonight?” Julia asked.
“Not tonight.” Nancy said. “Tomorrow, probably, if nothing unexpected happens.”
After supper the girls managed to charm two bedtime stories from their mother, and one from Dorothea, but eventually settled down to some semblance of “trying to sleep.”
“They’re very good at not waking up once they are asleep; it’s just getting them to sleep that is the trick.” Nancy said. “I’m sorry to inflict that on you when you’ve only just arrived. It’s partly a ploy of course: whichever story one of them chooses, the other is sure to choose a different one, and they know perfectly well that most people will then read both for the sake of a quiet life. We do, at any rate. They only ask for Winnie-the-Pooh when John is here though – I do the voices wrong, they say.”
“Edward likes Winnie-the-Pooh too. I’m not sure if he understands it completely.”
“I don’t think Julia does either. About the wall,” said Nancy, “there is quite a drop on the other side, although there is a little ledge too. I’d rather try to get in than out that way.”
“I thought you’d probably have tried it,” Dorothea said, “but I didn’t think I should say anything in front of the girls.”
“I did it last year, when Mother and Uncle Jim were here and took the girls out for a walk. I did wait until John was around to pick up the pieces. I could probably do it without the rope, but I’m not trying anything like that for the immediate future. The girls don’t know about that yet. They aren’t the best in the world at patience.”
Nancy grinned at Dorothea over the edge of her mug of cocoa.
“Can’t think where they get that from.” Dorothea murmured, surprising herself rather. She would have thought it, of course, when they were children, but she was surprised to hear herself actually say it to the Amazon pirate. Nancy just grinned a bit more widely. “Harriet sent you some pass-ons. She hopes you don’t mind. Some of them might a bit long of course.” Dorothea continued.
“That’s kind of her.” said Nancy. “And of course I don’t mind. Peggy had years of having to wear my pass-ons, after all. In fact, I’m rather relieved. There’s a biggish do next month. I can’t really fasten my posh frock now, so I’m sure I shan’t be able to then.” She stood up. “Look here, I’ve locked up and I quite understand if you want to sit up a bit, but would you think it very rude of me if I went to bed now? The girls won’t wake up any later just because they went to bed long past their normal time, I’m afraid.”
Was Nancy really that tired? Dorothea wondered as she snuggled down under her bedclothes. The day had been pleasantly warm, but the night was chilly. Or was this just Nancy being tactful? Admittedly tact and Nancy Blackett weren’t ideas that went together naturally, but Dorothea remembered the great aunt’s letter to Mrs Blackett, that summer when the Callums had had to be Picts, and wondered if, after all, Miss Turner had seen a side to Nancy that the pirate captain had rather nobody noticed. But then, that had been part of Nancy’s gloriously complicated and astonishingly successful scheme to keep the great aunt from making her mother miserable. It was too complicated to think about now. Dorothea was tired. She slept.
Dorothea had slept long into the morning. She was embarrassed to discover the time when she finally did wake up.
After she had eaten breakfast, and the girls and Nancy had kept her company with a glass of milk each, Dorothea unpacked and showed them the dresses and smocks Harriet had sent for Nancy, a few little frocks Susie Brading had outgrown for Julia, and jumper Dorothea had bought for Jane, when she realised that the elder Walker daughter would end up with no “present.”
There was one wine –red frock from Harriet with a square neck (I had it for Bunter’s wedding, I think. About that time anyway.) which reached to Nancy’s ankles and was pronounced suitable for dances and other occasions. Nancy was a good few inches shorter than Harriet, which meant that the empire line waist was lower than the dress’s designer had intended.
“But it’s still higher than my actual waist, so I’m sure it will do.” Nancy said.
“Better check now.” Dorothea suggested, “rather than find there’s a problem when it’s too late to do anything about it.”
They decamped to Nancy’s bedroom where the girls sat on the bed while Dorothea fastened the buttons down the back of the dress. It felt strangely intrusive to be there. Dorothea had slept in Nancy and Peggy’s bedroom at Beckfoot, of course, but this was the room Nancy shared with John, and his personality had stamped itself just as strongly on the room as Nancy’s, although his possessions were arranged more tidily.
“Have you got a pretty dress too, Auntie Dot?” Julia asked.
Dot was somehow not sorry to unpack the long gown of pale shell-pink silk. There had been another, very similar, in pale grey in the window of Miss Mango’s shop, which Dorothea had intended to try on, but Honoria had been with her and had insisted on her trying the pink.
“And after all, my dear, you do still have that grey satin that used to be Harriet’s, if you really need a grey evening frock. And I would certainly follow Miss Mango’s advice on this sort of thing. Peter wouldn’t have invested in this shop, you know if he wasn’t sure it was going to be a success, and I don’t see how it could be if she advised her customers poorly. Do you think you ought to buy yourself a new linen suit? I expect Malta gets quite warm in April and May. If you are pressed for coupons, you could use some of mine. I don’t think clothes rationing will last very much longer, and I have plenty of clothes already.”
That had been a day of quiet surprises, Dorothea remembered. Honoria had invited Lady Winifred and Bess Farland to join them for lunch and had somehow, through the flow of inconsequential chatter, made it clear to Dorothea what had caused the estrangement between Lady Winifred and her mother, and that Winifred could at least be sure her grandmother’s support.
“I have lived long enough, Dorothea,” Honoria said the next day as they were drive back to the dower house from Audley Square, “to realise that there is no point expecting other people to be happy in way we might want them to be happy. They have to be happy in their own way. Gerald will come around to the idea just as soon as Helen will let him. Sooner probably. He tries to do the decent thing as he sees it, of course, and fortunately Helen has never succeeded in making him care very much what other people might say.”
“They’ll want to make their own way.” said Dorothea, “Bess and Winifred I mean. Gerry did, but I don’t think he really realised it until the war.”
“That is what I admire so much about your generation, you and Harriet, although really I suppose you are in different generations, just the start of one and the end of another as it were. Perhaps that is part of the problem with Helen. In my day, and I suppose hers, it was so much more who you married that counted. Rather galling for her, to win the game and then discover that everyone else is playing a different game.”
“There are plenty of people still playing the old game, I suspect. I know my publishers never seem to accept a story where the hero is less well-off then the heroine, although it can seem that way for part of the story.”
“You’re a princess with long hair and a pink dress.” Julia was saying.
“Real princesses have brown hair like Mummy and Auntie Peggy.” Jane, “And their hair is short, sort of. Not long like in your book. You’ve seen pictures in the newspapers.”
“They aren’t real princesses. They haven’t got crowns on. And they haven’t got pink dresses.”
“They might be pink. You can’t tell in photographs.”
“Why are they all grey?” Julia demanded.
“I think they only have one kind of paint in the factory for newspapers.” Jane was more than a little hazy on this herself, but Dorothea could see she wasn’t going to admit it if she could help it.
“They should have asked Father Christmas for some crayons.”
“John’s cousin sent a book of fairy tales with pictures. Very kind of her, of course. It made quite an impression.” Nancy said quietly to Dorothea. Anyone who knew Nancy could have told she wasn’t pleased.
Nancy had assured Dorothea that she would have plenty of time for writing and she stuck to her word. Dorothea wrote for an hour or so after breakfast while the girls had “lessons” with their mother. Julia’s lessons didn’t consist of much more than scribbling “pictures,” mostly on the insides of envelopes opened out by Nancy and counting to twelve, but Jane read simple sentences, wrote something in her carefully titled “dairy” every day, added up with numbers up to twenty and subtracted with numbers up to ten (twenty if someone would lend their fingers for long enough.) Nancy had encouraged Jane so show the diary to Dorothea. It was, thought, Dorothea, a very Walker-ish diary. It was sunnny. It was rainny. We ate fish. I had ann appple. Auntie Dot camme.” Jane stuck to her task of a sentence a day with dogged determination.
After an hour of lessons, Nancy took the girls for a walk, and Dorothea usually came with them. There was a little café where they sometime went for coffee. On the third visit, Nancy suggested that Dorothea took the girls for a bit more of a walk after they had finished their coffee.
“I’m not really all that tired – but I did promise John I wouldn’t over-do things.”
It seemed so un-Nancyish that Dorothea felt quite alarmed for a moment, but when she came back, Nancy was sitting talking cheerfully to the proprietress in the deserted lull between the mid-morning customers and the start of lunchtime. Soon that became a kind of routine, happening three or four times a week: a short walk, coffee, Dorothea taking the girls off for a quarter of an hour or so, the walk together back to the house for lunch. Dorothea wondered if this was Nancy’s way of grabbing a few moments to herself, away from the perpetual chatter of why? and what for? and Mummy look at me, see what I’m doing! In the afternoons, they sometimes went exploring, limited by the range of Julia’s little legs, or they stayed at home and Dorothea wrote more, while Nancy played with the girls in the little courtyard. Sometimes Nancy had people to tea – other naval wives who were delighted to find out that Dorothea was a “real author”. A gratifying number had actually read one of her stories.
Dorothea had wondered if they were just being polite at the time, but John mentioned it one Sunday in late March, when they were sitting in the courtyard waiting for Nancy and the girls so come downstairs.
“Oh, I heard about it. But surely you must be used to it. I imagined you got lots of letters from readers.” John said.
“Yes, and some of them so complimentary, I think they must be writing about a different author. Some of them tell me how they think the story should have gone differently.”
“Bit of a cheek.” John commented. “Do you have to reply to them?”
“I try to.” she replied. “I just say thank you for the kind ones, and what a splendid idea, I do hope to read your novel when you’ve written it to the ones who say the story should be different, and sorry you didn’t enjoy it to the ones who write to say they hated a story. They aren’t the difficult letters, really.”
“So which are the difficult letters?”
“The ones where they think they’re being kind. The worst was a letter which said I can tell you must be a mother because you write sympathetically. I expect she meant to be kind.” Dorothea replied.
John could not think of anything helpful to say. “I’m sorry.”
His daughters ran up and conferred in whispers with Dorothea, Nancy following. The girls waved cards, produced from Dorothea’s bag.
“Happy Mother’s Day!”
Jane’s card had a sailing boat and plenty of blue crayoning. Julia’s had pink frilly stuff on it.
“Auntie Dot did Julia’s writing. I did my own. I told Auntie Dot what I wanted to write and she wrote it down on a piece of paper for me and I copied it.”
“They’re beautiful. Thank you.” said Nancy.
Note: In the UK, Mother’s Day, or Mothering Sunday, falls about mid-way through Lent and hence is in March. It was on 27th March 1949, I believe. I understand it is in May in the US and some other countries.