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Winter on the Mersey by Annie Groves (1)

Early Spring 1944

Dolly Feeny tried to shut out the sound of her oldest daughter screaming.

The sound echoed around the small terraced house, seeming to go on and on. Probably the whole road could hear the noise – Empire Street wasn’t long, leading as it did down to the dock road in Bootle, with a corner shop at one end, a pub at the other and the Mersey beyond the dockyards. On a normal day Rita would be behind the counter in that shop, either before or after working her shift as a nursing sister at the nearby hospital. But today wasn’t a normal day. Besides, everyone would know the reason for the screaming and would be with Rita all the way. Dolly put the kettle on again for what felt like the hundredth time that morning. No, it wasn’t every day that she prepared to welcome a new grandchild into the world.

Pop, Dolly’s husband, came into the kitchen, his white hair bright in the gloom of the cloudy day. He’d been up half the night, thanks to his duties as an ARP warden. Even though the raids that had plagued Merseyside for the earlier years of the war had died down, there was still the threat of danger from the crumbling buildings, or streets that hadn’t yet been cleared, and last night there had been a fire in an abandoned warehouse. Try as he might, he couldn’t get the smell of burning out of his hair or from his skin. If it had been a normal day he would have had a bath, filling it right up to the four-inch regulation line they all had to adhere to nowadays, and staying in it for as long as the water retained any comforting warmth. Today, however, there were more important things on his mind.

‘Do you think she’s all right?’ he asked anxiously. He very rarely admitted to being worried about anything; he was the rock on whom the whole family depended. But the cries from upstairs were enough to shake anyone’s confidence. He dearly loved Rita, as he did all his children, and couldn’t bear the thought of anything happening to her.

‘Course she is.’ Dolly spoke warmly but firmly. ‘You weren’t in the house when I had any of our five. It sounds much worse than it is, and remember she’s had two already. She’ll be right as rain.’ She smiled reassuringly, hoping that what she said was true. Nine years had passed since Rita had last given birth and she’d lost weight since then, thanks to the wartime diet and her non-stop hard work. But she was fit and healthy and, even more importantly, was no longer married to that cowardly deserter Charlie Kennedy. Now she had finally married her childhood sweetheart Jack Callaghan, a pilot with the Fleet Air Arm, and as steady and loving a husband as any woman could ever hope for. Dolly knew that Rita wanted nothing more than to bear this baby safely so that Jack could come home on leave and meet the precious creature. This must be the most longed-for child in the whole of Merseyside. God knew both of its parents had been through hell and back before getting together.

Dolly’s ears pricked up. ‘Listen, Pop.’ She wiped her strong, reddened hands on her faded print apron. ‘That’s a different noise, that is. Won’t be long now.’ She lifted the boiling kettle across to where the teapot stood ready. ‘Best have a cup now, as who knows when we’ll get the next one.’

‘Are you sure? Sounds just the same to me.’ Pop looked doubtfully at his wife. He wanted to believe her but didn’t trust himself to do so. It seemed no time at all since Rita herself was a baby, a pale-skinned little beauty with deep red hair. Now here she was having her own third child. Where had all those years gone?

‘Mam! Have you got any more hot water down there?’ came a voice from the top of the stairs.

‘I’ll bring it right up, Sarah love.’ Dolly emptied the rest of the water from the kettle into a large enamel jug, and then set another lot to boil just in case. ‘Pop, why don’t you fill the biggest pan from the tap and put that on to heat up as well.’ She bustled to the door, all anxiety gone now that there was something useful to do.

Pop looked around uncertainly. They’d lived in this house for almost all of their married lives and yet he still wasn’t sure where all the utensils in the kitchen were kept. That was Dolly’s territory. Still, this was no time to complain. He opened every cupboard door until he found the pan he hoped she meant.

Meanwhile, Dolly raced up the stairs as quickly as she could, belying her fifty-something years, but careful not to spill a drop of water. ‘Here you are, love.’ She handed the battered jug to her youngest daughter, who swiftly turned back to the bedroom and the screams.

If anyone had told Dolly at the beginning of the war that just a few years later young Sarah would be supervising the birth of Rita’s child, she would have laughed them to the other side of the Mersey. But now she could think of no better person. Sarah might be only nineteen, but she’d started her nurse’s training with the Red Cross as soon as she could and had been thrown in at the deep end, tending injuries during the bombings, coping with all manner of indescribable horrors, as well as delivering babies in the most unlikely places – ruined buildings, air-raid shelters, and once in the middle of a deserted street. Overseeing a birth in the comfort of her own bedroom, with her patient an experienced mother who just happened to be a senior nurse, with the support of their own experienced mother, and endless supplies of hot water and all the necessities, was a comparative luxury.

Rita could have chosen to give birth in her own bedroom, above the shop just across the road from her childhood home. But Sarah had persuaded her to cross the narrow alleyway that separated the two buildings and have the baby here. That way the shop could stay open and their sister-in-law Violet could look after it, along with Ruby. Ruby was a strange young woman who scared easily and was, they all agreed, unlikely to cope with the grim reality of childbirth at such close range. She was better than she had been back when Rita had first brought her there to live, but her neglectful childhood had ill-prepared her for the world at large, let alone a world at war. She was wonderful with children, though, adoring Rita’s first two – Michael and Megan – and also little George, the toddler son of Dolly and Pop’s middle daughter, Nancy.

Dolly and Sarah looked at Rita now, as she lay whey-faced on the old off-white bed linen, her usually lustrous red hair dark with sweat, her face screwed up with effort. But her eyes were bright. ‘It’s coming,’ she gasped. ‘I remember this bit. Mam, hold my hand, will you? Help me through these last few pushes.’ Dolly immediately knelt down beside her and took her damp hand, just as another wave of contraction and pain broke and Rita’s face contorted as she let out a loud scream.

Sarah stood at the bottom of the bed, her eyes never leaving her patient. ‘Come on, Rita, that’s right, you’re almost there. One more push could do it.’

Rita lay back exhausted, drawing in air in painful gulps. ‘It’s taking ages, though. Is everything all right? You’d tell me if it wasn’t, wouldn’t you, Sarah?’

‘Everything is just right.’ Sarah spoke with authority, for all her young age. ‘It’s been pretty quick actually, Rita. It just feels like a long time but it really isn’t.’ Her eyes narrowed a little as they assessed her big sister, registering that she was tired but not dangerously so, and that the next contraction seemed to be building. ‘Right, here we go, give me a big, big push and …’

Rita let out a piercing cry and then fell back against the pillow, but it had done the trick. As her own cry faded away it was replaced by a higher, more penetrating one, the unmistakable sound of a new-born child. ‘Rita! She’s here, she’s here! It’s a girl!’ Sarah struggled to remain professional as she picked up her niece and wrapped her carefully in a towel, automatically checking her as she did so, while Dolly stood to admire her latest granddaughter.

‘Oh, Rita, she’s beautiful.’ She gazed at the little face, red and puckered and screaming, but a miracle all the same. ‘Are you ready to hold her? Can you sit up?’

Rita raised herself against the pillow and Dolly stepped across to slip another one in behind it so that her daughter could prop herself semi-upright. ‘Are you all right like that? Come on then, Sarah.’

Gently Sarah handed the little bundle to her sister. ‘You did all right there. Anyone would think you’d done it before,’ she smiled. ‘Made it look easy.’

Rita reached for her new daughter and gasped with joy at the sight of her. ‘Look at her hair. It’s dark like Jack’s.’ She bent in to give the baby a kiss. ‘If you turn out as good as your daddy you’ll never have to worry. He’s going to be so delighted to meet you. You’re perfect, you are. Look at your little hands.’ The baby’s tiny fingers curled around her mother’s thumb, gripping on tightly, as if her life depended on it.

‘We’ll send Pop to get a message to him,’ Dolly announced, standing up straight, easing her aching back. ‘He’ll be made up, so he will. Now, Rita, did you have a name or is it too soon?’

Rita paused and then looked her mother in the eye. ‘It’s all right, we decided on Jack’s last leave. If it was a girl she’d be Ellen, after his mother. So this is Ellen.’ She turned her adoring gaze back to the baby.

Dolly found herself for once unable to speak for the lump in her throat. Ellen Callaghan had been her best friend in the whole world. They’d laughed together, done their housework together, raised their children together on Empire Street. But Ellen had died in childbirth when not so very much older than Rita was now. Dolly had looked out for the Callaghan children ever since – even though all but one were grown-up, and indeed the eldest was married to Rita. She could think of no more fitting tribute to her beloved friend.

‘That’s lovely,’ she managed to say. ‘We’ll tell the priest as well. You just lie there and get your strength back. Here, it looks as if the little one is hungry already.’

Rita shifted herself so she could feed little Ellen, and it was all Dolly could do not to cry – with relief for the safe birth, with the unexpected emotion of hearing her friend’s name spoken aloud after so many years and also with wonder at this miracle of new life. Somehow, despite the terrible hardships they had all endured since war broke out, and the atrocities that were going on still, she felt blessed to be in this world at such a marvellous moment.

‘So you’re sure you’ve got everything on your list, Mrs Mawdsley?’ Violet Feeny pushed her horn-rimmed spectacles back up the bridge of her nose from where they kept slipping. ‘Can you fit it all into your basket?’

The older woman pulled on her gloves, ready to face the bitter wind outside the small corner shop. ‘Everything that is available, anyway. Such a treat to find some Oxo. Thank you, dear. I know you do your best. I expect it’s even more difficult with your Rita so near her time, isn’t it?’

‘Oh, we manage all right, don’t we, Ruby?’ Violet turned to the shy figure behind her. ‘I put out the stock and serve the customers and Ruby does the books – she’s clever like that.’

Ruby raised her head, shaking her cloud of pale blonde hair which made her look so much younger than she was. ‘That’s right, Mrs Mawdsley.’ That was enough polite conversation for Ruby – she found it excruciatingly hard, so she turned back to the long columns of accounts spread out before her.

Violet kept her cheerful smile in place as Mrs Mawdsley left, banging the squeaky shop door behind her, and then she slumped down on to the hard wooden stool by the counter. She knew her customer meant well – she was one of Dolly’s best friends and had nothing but goodwill for the Feeny family. Violet herself had long since been accepted as one of them, as she’d married Eddy Feeny and come to live with her in-laws while Eddy was away serving with the Merchant Navy. She loved living with them and she enjoyed helping out in the shop, but her feelings about Rita’s new baby were plaguing her.

Violet longed more than anything for children of her own. Yet she and Eddy had been married for over three years and there was no sign of anything happening in that department. It wasn’t for lack of trying – Violet’s long face broke into a smile at the thought of that – but they hardly ever saw each other. His spells of leave were so rare, and so short when they did come, and then by the time he’d seen everyone he wanted to see and who wanted to see him, they had precious few moments on their own. Eddy was a quiet fellow – certainly compared to his more extrovert big brother Frank and middle sister Nancy – but he was very popular, and now he’d been doing his duty in the dangerous Western Approaches he was hailed as a hero every time he came home. Violet couldn’t argue with that – he was her hero, no doubt about it, and he’d already been a serving seaman when she’d met him, so it wasn’t as if she hadn’t known what their life together would be like. But it was so hard.

Violet knew her unofficial role was to keep everyone’s spirits up, and usually that suited her down to the ground, but today, knowing that Rita had gone into labour, she felt absolutely rotten. It wasn’t as if she didn’t get on with Rita – the two of them were thick as thieves and had worked together for years in the shop, helping the customers and putting on a brave face so that nobody around Empire Street went without. Violet didn’t like to admit it even to herself but she was filled with envy of her sister-in-law. Rita and Jack had had precious little time together either since their marriage just over two years ago, and yet here she was, about to give birth. It wasn’t fair. On top of that she had two children already. Violet knew full well that Rita had had to make an agonising decision as to whether to have Michael and Megan evacuated, and she missed them still even though they were relatively close out on a farm in Freshfield in Lancashire. Once the blitz had stopped, there had been talk about bringing them home, which Rita was desperate to do, and yet she had to acknowledge that farm life suited them both and they were flourishing in the fresh air, eating plentiful good food that they could never hope to get in war-ravaged Bootle.

Reluctantly Rita had agreed – with Jack’s backing – that the two children should stay away, at least for the time being, much to the delight of the farming couple, who had no children of their own and therefore spoilt them terribly. Michael and Megan had been promised that they could come back for a visit as soon as their new sister or brother was born. So Violet was steeling herself for the big family reunion, and while she knew it would make Rita’s joy complete, she dreaded the thought of it.

‘Violet, can you come and look at this?’ Ruby asked from behind her, and Violet jumped. How long had Ruby been speaking to her when she was lost in her agonising thoughts? She had to snap out of it, pull herself together, and not begrudge the generous Feenys their pleasure in the new arrival.

‘What’s wrong?’ Violet asked, bending her tall, willowy frame over the account books. She didn’t understand the figures; she knew Ruby was more than capable of sorting out any problem with them and was probably just asking her to make her feel wanted. That was a kind thing to do. But it didn’t come close to easing the longing that was eating away at her. ‘Oh, Eddy,’ she whispered to herself. ‘Come home soon, and let’s hope we can have the family we so badly want at last.’ But she didn’t breathe a word of this to Ruby. Instead Violet pitched up the sleeves of her moth-eaten cardigan and got back to the grind of keeping the little shop in business.