At the back door, nine-year-old Rita held out her palm, her fingers outstretched. Clara stared at it. Being the housemother of an orphanage was all new to her. Was she supposed to give the children something before school?
‘What’s this, Rita?’
‘Aren’t you going to beat us, Miss Newton?’ the little girl prompted, her sad eyes meeting Clara’s.
England, 1948. In the aftermath of the Second World War, hundreds of children have been left without homes or families, the only survivors of German bombings in the cities. Clara Newton unexpectedly secures a job as Housemother of a country village orphanage. For Clara, it’s a bittersweet new start – she needs a change of scene, but the move brings her closer to where her lost fiancé Michael, a brave American pilot, was stationed during the war.
But when Clara arrives at Shilling Grange Orphanage, she realises she knows nothing about children – not least how to look after eight little ones who have nobody else in the world but her. And Clara’s appearance in town has caught the attention of more than just her new charges. While Clara’s new neighbour – brooding veteran Ivor Delaney – seems to enjoy critiquing Clara’s every move, charismatic and wealthy local lawyer Jolyon White is all too happy to smooth things over. But after Michael’s tragic disappearance, and with such profound new responsibility on her hands, is Clara really ready to move on?
An absolutely heartbreaking read – emotional and unforgettable. Fans of Before We Were Yours, Diney Costeloe and The Orphan Sisters won’t be able to put this book down.What readers are saying about Lizzie Page:
’Brought me to tears… The story has plenty of twists and turns… If you like romantic historical fiction, particularly which is set in wartime, then this is the book for you! This, at times, bought tears to my eyes and equally a warm glow to my heart.’ Stardust Book Reviews
‘Lizzie Page has gone and done it again with this beautiful, poignant and immensely emotional story… She is by far one of my favourite authors… Lizzie you have blown me away with your beautiful words, wonderful imagination and emotional story… It is a lovingly written story that has real heart, and one that I cannot recommend enough.’ Chicks Rogues and Scandals, 5 stars
‘I loved it!... I adore Lizzie Page’s writing and the way she so brilliantly blends fact and fiction.’ Jill Mansell, bestselling author
‘Page is a wonderful writer, one that draws me in to the story completely and utterly … wonderful characters… brilliantly plotted with a delightfully intertwined story, it has the heartbreak of war and a gorgeous love story… fantastic…
Release date: August 27, 2021
Print pages: 350
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The nun wouldn’t let her in but held the door on its latch and squinted out. Her face was white and powdery. She had tiny black eyes like stones in the snow.
‘In trouble, are we?’
‘Pull open your coat. Let’s see. Twelve weeks, I’d say, no more.’
Regretting the cress sandwich she’d had on the train, Clara muttered, ‘I’m here for the job. I’m the new housemother.’
The lock made a rasping sound as the nun drew it back.
Clara followed the nun to a large kitchen at the back of her house.
‘I’m Miss Newton – Clara. At your service.’
‘What should I call you?’
‘Sister Eunice will do.’
‘Didn’t the council let you know I was coming?’
Sister Eunice sniffed. ‘I was expecting an older lady.’
Clara decided to take this as a compliment.
‘And… and… the children?’
Of course they were at school.
‘What time will they be returning?’
‘Just after midday,’ said Sister Eunice. ‘For their luncheon.’
‘And then back to school?’
It was only nine thirty a.m. Clara had tiptoed away from Judy’s home at six thirty, careful not to wake anyone, caught the 8.15 train and waited half an hour at a platform in Chelmsford for the change.
Midday felt like many moons away.
‘I see. And… and… are there some files I could look at while I’m waiting? Bit of background always helps.’
This was Clara’s way to get a grip on a situation. Hadn’t she turned Harris & Sons round with her systems? Invoices. Expenses. Miscellaneouses. Everything had its place. For ten years she had been the company ‘godsend’ and then, out the blue, she wasn’t needed anymore. Dismissed. Small payout, yes, but to all intents and purposes, dismissed. She hoped her replacement, the luminous Miss Barber, was suffering in Clara’s swivel chair, at Clara’s beloved typewriter, but she doubted she would be. Unfortunately, Clara had made her systems foolproof even for that fool.
Sister Eunice stared into the middle distance.
‘I said, the files? About the accommodation or the children?’
‘There was never any need.’ Sister Eunice spoke to the air. ‘We know the children.’
‘Well, there must be some paperwork… just to get started.’
‘Start with the laundry.’
There were four bed sheets in the basket, various smaller items like towels and one cuddly toy. It was a warm insect-y kind of day, summer seemed reluctant to let go of its hold and Clara grew hot at the mangle. When the washing was satisfyingly done, Clara lugged it outside. The garden was a lovely green space, defended by trees lining every fence and a garden shed like a fairy-tale house tucked at the back. It was a big change from the rubble-and-broken-glass playgrounds of London. Clara pegged up the sheets and admired them fluttering prettily in the breeze like reports unwritten.
She had applied to the advertisement ‘Do What Women Do Best – Caring’ because it was the only one in the Evening Standard she could apply for.
She was not an ex-serviceman with exemplary driving skills or a chef for a high-class Mayfair restaurant. She was not looking for a new and exciting sales opportunity.
But she was female, between 20–40 (26), responsible and sensible (quite) and she was looking for a stimulating job, accommodation in an attractive location included, no experience required.
She hadn’t expected to be offered an interview – and, when she was, decided it would serve as a warm-up or practice run for a real job. She borrowed Judy’s good shoes and the suit Judy wore for meeting parents at school and, perhaps because she didn’t think she stood a chance, she hadn’t come across as nervous. She had gaily chatted away to the panel of two men and the kind-eyed, stiff-haired lady as though she had nothing to lose.
Indeed, she had surprised herself with the things that came out her mouth. It wasn’t that she made anything up, but she might have exaggerated her skills and interests a teeny bit. No, not exaggerated, it was like putting something under a magnifying glass. It became big or intricate when actually in real life it was… insignificant. So under the magnifying glass, having attended boarding school was ‘a great training ground for working in a children’s home’, her role at old employers, Harris & Sons, was ‘vital to their smooth running’ and ‘protecting children from nefarious influences would always be her number one priority’, et cetera, et cetera.
Although it was Suffolk County Council that had interviewed her, Clara also hadn’t thought much about where the attractive job location might be. After all, the interview was held in a dimly lit office over a greengrocers in Islington… but then to be allocated a home in Lavenham of all places – that was the push that made her say yes.
Tremulously, she had read the offer over and over again and then made Judy read it too. Clara wasn’t usually superstitious – she took a cheeky pride in bringing open umbrellas into a house or walking close to – if not quite under – a ladder, but on this occasion, it was just too much of a coincidence.
Lavenham? The job was meant to be.
Sister Eunice was nowhere to be found. Some potatoes were heating in a pot and a chunk of ham was out: presumably lunch was taken care of. The washing was drying, the house was tidy, the children were at school.
In her room, Clara unpacked her case. She hesitated about putting her framed photos out on display before deciding: why not? – this was where she lived now. If she acted like she was comfortable, then the rest of her would hopefully catch up soon.
Photo one was a faded picture of Michael as a baby, a woollen cap tied under his chin, in a pram with great wheels, proudly showing a rattle to someone out of shot – the photographer, perhaps. This was one his mother had sent, after Michael wrote to her in those sweet carefree months that they were getting married.
There was a photo of her and Michael together at a dance hall in Clapham. The Roxy, was it? (They went to so many.) It was the night Michael had proposed and, still breathless from the lindy hop, she’d said yes in a flash – she’d been scared he might change his mind. There’d been no hesitation about it – not only would they marry, she would go back with him to America. Their future together stretched out like some great adventure. How happy she looked in black and white, her shirt brilliant, her lipstick luminous. It was like she was a different person.
The third photograph was her favourite: Michael in uniform propped against a plane. The plane was so big, it made him look small when he wasn’t small at all, he was a broad fella, in a brown leather jacket, at RAF Cockfield – or RAF Lavenham, as it was sometimes known. Sometimes Clara found looking at that photo unbearable, but you had to bear it, you had to. Today, she gazed at it fondly. Michael would be proud of her, she knew he would.
Clara got out her papers, her pen and ink, from her handbag, and set up her desk just as she liked it. Enough dreaming. She was here at Shilling Grange Children’s Home to work. Clara was not a shirker, that was one thing that was the same about her, magnifying glass or not. She began her first report:
THE ACCOMMODATION AT SHILLING GRANGE, 3 LAVENHAM HIGH ROAD AS OF 9 SEPTEMBER 1948
by Miss Clara Newton, new housemother.
Shilling Grange is a picturesque medieval house with beams and chimneys. It is old and feels old too – you wonder if these walls could speak, what would they say?
There’s an enormous sign outside like an advertising billboard, impossible to miss. The Grange has been a children’s home since the 1900s, run by nuns, most of whom left this year. Sister Eunice seems a woman who knows what she is doing and runs a tight ship. I endeavour to learn as much as I can from her.
The kitchen is ample-sized, complete with stove and chill cupboard. I think almost everything we need is here (check?). Larder looks adequately equipped. There is a lot of flour and not many tins. I presume Sister Eunice bakes.
I have a nice-sized room on the first floor. Simple, but all I require. There is a bathroom next door, which I think is mine to share with Sister Eunice. It is clean.
I presume the downstairs parlour is not used much, since the chairs are covered by plastic. It is not dusty though. Whoever does the cleaning is doing a fantastic job. Pleased to note there is also a wireless!
There is a dormitory room on the first floor and another on the ground floor. Both have four beds each, but I doubt there are eight children here now (check?). The children’s bathroom is in the basement and it is dark, damp and smells as you’d imagine. There are large puddles around the boys’ toilet (possible leak?) but the girls’ seems fine.
There are four washbasins and four cubicles. Not a bad ratio. The children’s belongings are all numbered. I don’t know why they don’t have their names on. By belongings, I mean their mugs, their toothbrushes, their flannels, towels and combs. All of them have seen better days… There is one mirror, cracked. Talk to Sister Eunice about a replacement?
There is also an outside lav with newspaper squares all over the floor. Only the spiders seem to use this one.
I wonder if it’s possible to change some of the rooms around so that older children can have some privacy and so that there is a play area? The shed in the garden might be suitable for play.
Actually, I’ve just realised, I haven’t seen any pictures, toys or games anywhere. I don’t like to say it, but the impression is rather bleak. Talk to Sister Eunice and/or designated contact at council asap.
Three and a bit hours after Clara first arrived, all manner of small people piled into the Shilling Grange kitchen. They were wearing dresses or shorts. Knee socks or ankle socks. The state of their shoes – the polish couldn’t disguise the holes. They wore matching black capes that gave them the air of bats. Some stared at her. Some ignored her.
Clara realised suddenly it had been a long time since she had been around children. In fact, the only time she had spent a substantial amount of time with them was when she was a child herself. Judy was good with little ones. Clara had always been more at ease with graphs and charts.
The littlest child strode over, put her hand in Clara’s. Clara froze.
‘Do you know where Mama is?’
‘I don’t, sorry.’
The girl snatched away her hand.
Sister Eunice had disappeared again. She had a knack for not being in the same room as Clara at any time. Clara had hoped to watch her interact with the children. They’d have to get together and do an information handover over the next few days.
‘Who are you?’ one of the boys asked.
‘I’m your new housemother.’ Clara tried to speak small child. She had not tried this obscure language before. ‘Do you know what that is?’ she asked slowly, as if he were a foreign person. They had those at Harris & Sons sometimes.
The children shook their heads.
‘Why do you speak like that?’ said the boy, imitating her.
Clara sped up. ‘A housemother is a lady installed by the council to see that every child – like you – gets the best possible care.’
‘Are you going to find Mama?’ the smallest child persisted.
Clara knew she shouldn’t make promises she mightn’t be able to keep, but it slipped out: ‘I can try.’
The girl jumped up and down.
‘Find Mama! Find Mama!’
A bad start. Clara looked at the others: big ones, skinny ones, ones whose hair fell into their faces. Ones whose hair was tangled, ones whose hair was shiny, two boys who looked exactly the same.
‘Are you a nun?’ asked one boy with a shaved head and pink ears that stuck out so far, Clara feared for the plates balancing on the dresser he stood next to.
‘What do we call you then?’
‘You can call me…’ Clara had anticipated saying ‘Aunty Clara,’ but now thought that would be too informal. ‘Miss Newton.’
‘I’m Alex.’ The boy presented a grimy paw. Clara dreaded to think where it had been, but she couldn’t not shake back. ‘That is Rita,’ he said, pointing to the girl, who was still jumping.
‘And this is Peter.’ He gestured to the lad next to him.
‘Nice to meet you,’ Peter said with a shy smile. Peter was much taller than Clara, that age in between the adult world and the child one. He had so many freckles, she could hardly see his skin beneath them.
Peter, she told herself. She must try to remember them as quickly as she could. Alex with the ears, Peter with the freckles, Rita with the mama.
Another child pushed forward.
‘And I’m Terry!’
‘Hello, young man.’
One of the identical boys laughed.
‘That’s not a young man, that’s a girl.’
‘I see. Teresa, is it?’
‘It’s Terry.’ Terry’s bottom lip stuck out and she put her fist to her chin.
‘I was just wondering at the derivation of the nickname.’
‘Um, derivation, it means… where it’s from.’
‘I’m from London.’
The identical boys jumped forward as though for inspection. Toes lined up, white hair, red cheeks, they saluted.
‘I suspected it.’
‘What are your real names?’ Clara asked more confidently. She stopped at their expressions. ‘Riiight-O. Billy and Barry it is.’
The children went to wash. Clara let out a sigh of relief, but just when she was on her own again, the back door opened and a man with a small child on his shoulders entered the kitchen. He was singing about fishes and dishes while the child’s feet tapped rhythmically on his chest. He had very dark hair, jet-black even – and a strong jawline. Not quite Desperate Dan territory but a few centimetres more and it might have been. He sang neither well nor badly, but with great enthusiasm.
‘When the boat comes innnnnn!’ he chorused, while the child did rowing motions with her arms.
He startled when he saw Clara. ‘I didn’t know there were visitors. Forgive my… entrance.’
‘I’m the new housemother.’ Clara was thrown. ‘I… I… rather enjoyed the song.’
She wiped her hands on her skirt. She shouldn’t be hot and bothered at the proximity of a handsome man – at her mature years especially – but she was. Judy’s eyebrows would have shot straight to her hairline at this one.
‘And what’s your name, sweetie?’
‘Ivor Delaney,’ said the man, straight-faced.
Clara blushed. ‘I meant the little girl. Little girl, what do they call you?’
The girl’s eyes widened before she buried her face in the man’s shoulder. He swung her feet down to the floor with an ‘Oop-la! This is Peg.’
‘Well, hello, Peg!’ said Clara in the brightest voice she could muster. Peg’s ruler-straight hair swung into her own snot. What was it with small children that they never had handkerchiefs? Clara would make this a priority.
Ivor held out his hand. ‘I live just over the road – which is where I found Peg. Please call me Ivor.’
‘Clara. Clara Newton.’
As they shook hands, Clara’s eyes were drawn to his other arm, which ended in a curved nub just before where the elbow should have been. It made her shiver. It wasn’t that it was ugly – just unexpected. When he noticed her looking, he swung it slightly behind him, biting his lip. She wanted to explain she did not find it repulsive, just curious, but how do you put that into words?
‘I was wondering where she was,’ Clara lied. ‘How do you do, Miss Peg?’
‘Peg doesn’t speak,’ Ivor said quietly.
‘I’m sure she does.’
‘Well, why not?’
Shaking his head incredulously, Ivor muttered something – possibly an expletive – under his breath.
‘What a lovely…’ Clara cast around for something to compliment poor Peg on, ‘blouse. Is blue your favourite colour?’
The girl grabbed Ivor’s leg and hid behind it. She was even tinier than the Rita child.
‘Red is mine,’ Clara gabbled on. ‘For clothes, that is; for other things, like eyes, I think brown is most pleasant and I suppose I like blue sky and grass is best when it’s green…’ She laughed nervously. ‘What about you, Peg?’
The girl shook her head from side to side vigorously.
‘What part of doesn’t speak did you not understand?’ Ivor sounded cross. The little girl ran out of the kitchen. At the same time, an older girl, she must have been about thirteen, came in the back door. Clara was relieved at the interruption.
‘Hellooo and welcome!’
Welcome? Who was she to welcome anyone?
‘So, you’re the new nun?’
Clara gave the girl her broadest smile, for here was an ally. The girl was almost an adult!
‘I’m not a nun, my name is Miss Newton.’ This girl had masses of light brown hair and beneath that sullen expression, you could tell she was bright as a button. ‘As you’re older, you can call me Clara.’
‘You’ve got something in your teeth, Miss Newton.’
‘Maureen,’ said Ivor in a low voice. ‘Try to make Miss Newton feel welcome, could you?’
‘Welcome,’ Maureen parroted.
Ivor made for the door. ‘Good luck.’
‘Thank you for bringing back Peg.’ Clara wanted to add, ‘and correcting Maureen’ but she didn’t want to say that in front of her.
‘It’s my pleasure.’ Ivor paused, his hand on the handle. ‘Just so you know, I don’t agree with the changes.’
‘The changes going on around here. Since the Children’s Act. Things were working all right before. Now,’ he surveyed the kitchen, ‘all the nuns have gone away.’
‘Sister Eunice hasn’t.’
‘And it’s just… kids being divided, moved around for no reason and…’ He paused, looked at the floor. ‘Council bringing in a lot of inexperienced pen-pushers.’
Inexperienced pen-pushers? Clara blushed. He meant her.
‘With no idea what they’re getting themselves into. And who have loads of unsuitable ideas,’ he added, to hammer the point home. If there was one type of person Clara disliked, it was someone who hammered a point home.
‘Well, thank you for your opinion.’
‘When I see something wrong, I say it.’
‘An interesting quality.’
Clara noticed with alarm that his eyes were brown. He might have thought she was referring to his eyes earlier. Should she mention that she liked blue eyes equally?
‘Especially when children are involved.’
‘Sorry if that’s not what you wanted to hear. Goodbye.’
Clara thought she could already write a whole file on Ivor, title: bad-tempered neighbour. Maureen was smirking as the other children clattered back in, each taking a place on the bench. There was no argument about who sat where, but it soon become clear there was no place for Clara. There was barely enough space for the children. Sister Eunice steamed in like a great ship, positioned herself at the head of the table and gazed disapprovingly about her. Maureen brought the potatoes to the table. Billy or Barry presented the ham. The children eyed their cutlery. Epochs passed before Clara could bring herself to say, ‘Oh, I don’t seem to have anywhere to sit.’
No one moved until the freckly boy – was it Peter? – scraped back his chair. ‘I’ll find something,’ he whispered like he had done something wrong.
Sister Eunice hadn’t even looked up.
Peter staggered back with a footstool and dropped it at the free end of the table. Unfortunately, it was very low, and once she had sat upon it, Clara could barely see over the table edge. She was a full head smaller than everyone else. She hoped that someone might offer to swap, but no one did. Indeed, some of the children – the twins, for example – sniggered and even Peg-who-didn’t-speak was grinning. They may as well have plonked Clara in the corner wearing a dunce’s cap for all the dignity it offered.
Sister Eunice recited the Lord’s Prayer. Clara mouthed the words, keeping one eye open the way she used to as a child. Eight children! Eight individual children. Eight people, each with their own wants and needs. When she had pictured eight, it did not seem as many as there were in front of her right now.
Still, she supposed, she would pick it up. Sister Eunice would guide her and Clara prided herself on being a quick learner. When Harris & Sons had been instructed to switch their entire operations from manufacturing domestic appliances to munitions, Clara had been at the vanguard of the change. She had adjusted then and she could adjust now.
‘Well, I’m delighted to be here!’ Clara said once the Amens were done. ‘How wonderful to meet you—’
‘We eat in silence!’ Sister Eunice held her fork closer to heaven, then slid it into her mouth.
‘What? The whole mealtime?’
Sister Eunice inclined her head.
‘I didn’t expect…’
Sister Eunice chewed and swallowed slowly.
To return to school, the children put on the identical bat-capes over their clothes again.
‘Why do you wear those things?’
They ignored her.
‘I asked a question,’ Clara snapped and finally they jumped to attention, the smaller ones looking at each other warily. Terry trembled and Alex’s ears went red. ‘Why do we wear these?’ The oldest girl – Maureen – plucked hers with disdain. ‘So everyone knows we’re from Shilling Grange. Otherwise, we’ll look like normal children and we can’t have that, can we?’
What to do now? Sister Eunice had once again vanished. This was Clara’s free time until the children came back at four. She decided she may as well go out and get her bearings.
She had been too glued to her map to notice much about the village earlier, but now she saw Lavenham High Road was a beautiful parade of shops and private residences. Whitewashed fronts and hanging flower baskets, cobbled pavements, even some thatched roofs. It was like going back in time and it was every bit as beautiful as Michael had told her. She had thought he was exaggerating – he loved everything English and he wasn’t discerning. But now she felt emotional as she looked at all the shops that Michael must have seen and the White Horse public house, where he may have gone for a drink in the evenings (she wasn’t sure if he’d mentioned it. She hated that she couldn’t remember).
She remembered other things though. He had said, ‘Lavenham is like a film set.’ Yes, it was, it was a change from London that was for sure and it was exactly what she needed. Now that she was in the countryside, Clara wanted woods, foxes, squirrels, ferns and kissing gates. No, not kissing gates, she wasn’t ready for that yet. And no cows either. Every so often she’d read in the papers about a fatal cow-trampling incident; honestly, you’d think they were just as dangerous as the Nazis.
As she wandered through the village, drinking it all in, a fashionably dressed woman bowled towards her, surprisingly quickly given the uneven state of the cobblestones and the height of her heels.
‘Hello. You look lost.’
No one would approach someone like that in London, a city of strangers cradling their own business to them, but Clara was delighted.
‘I am – but in a good way. I’m feeling my way around.’
‘Wonderful.’ She gripped Clara’s hands. ‘This town could do with some new blood. You will instantly halve the average age of us residents.’
She laughed at her own comment, then stepped in companionably beside Clara as though they knew each other well. She looked about Clara’s age. Fitted jacket, pencil skirt, all in a pretty sky blue. Wedding ring on her finger, naturally – most women their age were married – but of course she might be a war widow. Her hair was bleached white-blonde, Hollywood style. Clara loved celebrity fashion – if she had the guts, she would have done the same. She hadn’t experimented with her own style for years. On the other hand, dyeing it must take an awful lot of upkeep and, Clara regretted, she probably didn’t have the stamina. To be honest, nowadays she found even powdering her nose a bore.
It was great luck to meet someone straight away who could be a friend.
‘I was just thinking to myself, what a beautiful village.’
‘And we are such a community here, I can tell you all about it. I’m Dotty, Mrs Garrard – oof, I love saying that. I’ve only been married six months. My husband – love saying that too – Larry is over there.’ She pointed to a man in a trilby staring at the signs in the post office window. ‘LARRY. Come and meet…’
‘Miss Newton. Clara.’
Clara didn’t have to wait long for ‘the look’. Mrs Garrard sucked in her lips sympathetically, causing lipstick to stick to her teeth. ‘Never mind. I love a project and I know we will be absolute friends. Where are you based? The Lavender Arms is a dream. I hear their breakfast is to die for. Larry has promised me a night there for our anniversary. Wood,’ she added. ‘Or lead, I can never remember.’
‘I’m at Shilling Grange.’
Mrs Garrard stopped dead.
‘The Grange? But that’s not a hotel.’
‘No, it isn’t.’
In a hushed voice, she continued, ‘The orphanage, the Grange?’
Mrs Garrard’s demeanour had changed completely. Hands on hips, she demanded, ‘What on earth are you staying there for?’
‘I’m the new housemother there.’
Clara liked the word ‘housemother’. It suggested her chief task was to take care of a building. She could do that with her eyes shut. At Harris & Sons, they used to say that efficiency was her middle name.
‘Oh? Is that what it is?’
‘That place doesn’t belong here. It should move out of the high road. This is a respectable town. We’re the home of Jane Taylor.’
Mrs Garrard shook her head in despair. ‘The poet. And Constable. And you must know Sir Munnings, the painter? And his horses?’
‘Sir Munnings and his horse paintings?’ Amused, Clara pictured a man and his horse painting at easels side by side.
The husband had joined his wife. He was holding a small brown dog under his arm that matched his wispy moustache. He was a cheerful-looking soul. Judy would have said he looked ‘pleased with himself’.
Mrs Garrard poked him in the elbow.
‘This… she has come to work here. At the orphanage of all places.’
‘Oh, yes, we want them out!’ he chirruped. He had such an unexpectedly high voice that despite her confusion, Clara wanted to giggle. ‘Nothing personal. Just standards. And property values.’
‘And the rest,’ sniffed his wife.
‘We think they would be better off in Ipswich,’ he squeaked. The dog put its paw on its master’s arm protectively. It’s not him that needs protecting, thought Clara.
‘Or Clacton? An orphanage would do well in Clacton.’
The two sauntered off.
‘It’s paper!’ Clara shouted. ‘It’s definitely paper. For your one-year anniversary. Not wood.’
Clara had just arrived back home, Mrs Garrard’s words still ringing in her ears, when Sister Eunice appeared, wrapped in an overcoat, carpet bag in hand.
‘It’s goodbye from me, dear,’ she said in a more affable tone than Clara would have thought her capable of.
‘I’m off. For good.’
‘Already? It can’t be… What? Who is… who is to tell me what to do?’
Sister Eunice couldn’t contain her happiness. ‘You’ll pick it up, dear.’
‘Won’t you…’ Clara grasped at straws. ‘Won’t you want to say goodbye to the children?’
‘Wouldn’t want to make a fuss.’
‘And… and…’ There were so many things Clara wanted to say, she didn’t know where to begin. ‘Do you have any last words of advice?’
‘Whip them.’ Sister Eunice’s face was close to Clara’s. ‘Hard. When they wet. Bye.’
There was a telephone number for the council among the papers in the dresser, but it said it was only for emergencies. Was this an emergency? Hard to say. Clara also hadn’t found an actual telephone in the house yet. She had no telephone, no plan, no strategy, no schedule, no information, nothing.
It certainly felt fairly emergency-like.
A nice cup of tea, Clara decided. That’s what she and Judy had done throughout the Blitz and it had never failed. And at least there were no bombs. At least there were no children in crocodile formation wearing gas masks, at least there were no body parts engulfed in rubble.
Deep breaths. She could do this.
As soon as the children came back from school, freckly Peter – who had fetched Clara the stool – scrubbed the oven, his whole head in it, while Alex laid the table for breakfast. The twins peeled vegetables for the pie they would have the next day. The girls swept and polished the floors. The smell of wax was everywhere.
All the children washed their ankle socks and left them to dry on the bathroom pipes. Then they polished the pile of shoes. Clara had wondered if they might sit down together and listen to Children’s Hour on the wireless, but they we
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