Chapter 1: Happy Birthday, Emmy Lake Chapter 1 HAPPY BIRTHDAY, EMMY LAKE
Margaret and I had been tap-dancing in the garden for nearly twenty minutes, and I was beginning to feel the strain. It was a Sunday afternoon in April and we were celebrating my twenty-fifth birthday. On current performance I was beginning to show my age.
“Keep going, Emmy. TAP, STEP, BALL CHANGE,” bellowed Marg, showing admirable focus for an eleven-year-old. “Mr. Collins, are you watching? I’m being Rita Hayworth, and Emmy is Fred Astaire.”
With the sun shining as if no one in the world had a care, spring had turned into summer for the event and I was enjoying my first day off for weeks. At the house my best friend Bunty and I shared in Pimlico, it was so warm that our small party had decamped into the garden, happy to have an excuse to be outside.
Now our friend Thelma’s daughter was putting me through my paces.
“Well done,” I panted as Guy Collins clapped loudly and Margaret hoofed even faster. She was not what one might call a natural dancer, but since we’d been to see You Were Never Lovelier at the Odeon Cinema, she had shown the most enormous commitment, and as far as I was concerned, that beat talent every time.
“Excellent work,” confirmed Guy from the wooden picnic table where he was playing a game of chess with Margaret’s big brother, George. “Although, do you think you may be making yourself perhaps the tiniest bit pink?”
Margaret was an incandescent shade of red.
“It is warm for this time of year,” said George politely, moving his knight. He was nearly thirteen and prone to becoming A Grown-Up in the presence of adults, particularly those he admired. “Do you know, sir, I think that’s checkmate.”
“Again!” laughed Bunty, knowing full well that Guy was a dab hand at the game.
“Good Lord,” said my brother-in-law, taking defeat well, particularly as he had taught George to play only the week before last. “Well done, old man. And once again, there’s really no need to say sir.”
Stanley, Thelma’s youngest child, joined in. “Actually,” he said, leaning conspiratorially over Guy’s shoulder, “I think Marg’s dancing is rubbish. She sounds like a herd of elephants.”
“Who’s she, the cat’s mother?” said Thel mildly. “Come on, Stan, everyone has to start somewhere. And remember we’re being doubly nice, as it’s Emmy’s birthday.”
Stan nodded and looked thoughtful. He was only nine and an honest lad, which was supposed to be a good thing, so he was always baffled when he got told off about it. “You are having a nice time, aren’t you, Aunty Emmy?” he asked.
“I certainly am, Stan,” I said, giving up being Mr. Astaire and collapsing into a deck chair. “Although, I think I might need a rest now.”
“And you do like your presents?” asked Stan, who had given me a still slightly sticky balsa wood model of a Lancaster bomber that he had made himself.
“They’re all lovely,” I said. “Especially the Lancaster. I’m going to get some thread and hang it from the ceiling in the kitchen so everyone who visits will see it.”
Stanley looked chuffed, and I thought what a smashing day it had been all round. Usually there was hardly any time to draw breath, let alone loll about, so today had been a real treat. I’d had lots of cards through the post, and phone calls from my parents and my friend Anne. She and her two small children had crammed into a telephone box to sing “Happy Birthday” and shriek excitable best wishes until their money ran out. My friend Kath had sent a cable-knit bolero that fitted like a glove, and then Guy had arrived with a large bunch of early tulips and shop-bought chocolate bread pudding that must have taken up all his coupons. Bunty had made me the most beautiful crocheted purse in my favourite shade of blue, and to cap it all, Thelma and the children arrived with an airgraph that had been sent to her so that she could give it to me on the right day.
It wasn’t any old airgraph, either.
It was from my husband, Charles. It still felt funny, calling him that. Even though we had been married nearly sixteen months, we had spent only three days of it together before he had joined his unit in the army and headed away overseas. I missed him like anything and wrote to him almost every day. Sometimes he received my letters; other times he didn’t. It rather depended on whether they had moved off to fight somewhere else. But I wrote to him all the same, numbering each letter so he would know if he had missed out.
Despite being so far away and in the middle of goodness knows what (he was always purposely vague), letters from Charles did make it home. They were infrequent, though, and all the more precious for it.
Today’s airgraph was not so much a letter as a birthday card of sorts. Charles had drawn the most dreadful picture of us both and put Happy Birthday in huge letters underneath. Then he had written,
My Darling Girl,
Have the most marvellous time with everyone. I shall be thinking of you the entire day—as ever, of course.
My God I miss you, my dearest love. Can’t wait till I get to see you again. Won’t be long until Adolf gives in!
Your loving husband,
PS: Hope you are impressed with my artistry. No, darling, it’s not awful—it’s Modern. You’d better hang on to it—could be worth a fortune. Take that, Picasso! Xxx
It made me laugh and cry at the same time, and as much as I adored Stanley, I had not told the truth about the balsa wood plane. Charles’s letter was by far the best present I could possibly have had.
“Does anyone fancy some more cake?” I asked, overly heartily. The children’s arms shot up and then Bunty joined in.
“I’d love some if there’s enough to go round,” she said. “That is the best Victoria sponge I’ve had all year.”
“It’s the only one,” I said, cutting what remained of the small cake into thin slices so that everyone could have seconds. Thelma said she wasn’t hungry, which is what she always said when anything on the ration came up. It didn’t matter what you did to try to persuade her, she always gave her share to the children.
“Too late. It’s my birthday, so you have to do as I say.” I grinned, handing her a piece.
Thelma thanked me and began to tuck in. “Ooh, before I forget,” she said between mouthfuls, “Bunty, Frank Owen was asking after you.”
Frank was one of the firemen at Carlton Street Fire Station, where both Thelma and I worked. He was quite new, and as I was only there part time, I didn’t know him that well. Bunty and I had bumped into him the other day on our way to the grocer’s.
“Do I know a Frank Owen?” asked Bunts, spotting a microscopic bit of jam on her plate. After three and a half years of war, we had all become experts in sniffing out every last trace of anything sugary or in short supply.
“We saw him by the shops last week,” I said.
“Righto,” said Bunty.
“I think he’s taken a shine to you,” said Thelma, as if it had only just occurred to her, rather than being a source of furtive discussion between her and me for at least seventy-two hours.
As Bunty started tidying the tea things, Thel threw me a Meaningful Look.
“Oh,” I said casually. “Taken a shine? That’s nice.”
Bunty stopped what she was doing and gave us both the sort of long-suffering stare a teacher adopts when someone in the classroom has made a rude noise. “I am entirely fine as I am,” she said patiently.
“Of course,” I cried.
“I’ll say,” said Thel.
Guy, who had been listening quietly, shook his head and then turned his face up towards the sun, smiling to himself behind a pair of clip-on sunglasses.
“I just thought I would mention it,” said Thelma. “You know. In case.”
Bunty smoothed her hands across her cotton summer skirt. It had been two years since she had lost her fiancé, William, in the most awful of air raids, and while she had now recovered well from her own injuries, the idea of seeing someone again was not top of her list.
“I’m sure Frank is lovely,” she said. “And I know you worry about me, but I’m perfectly happy as I am. One day, perhaps, but…” She shrugged. “I’m just not terribly bothered.”
I nodded in agreement. Bunty had a million years ahead of her to think about chaps.
Thelma, on the other hand, was a little more gung-ho about the idea, and I realised she had stopped listening after One day and was doing all she could not to grab the bull by the horns and march it straight up the aisle.
“Frank’s quite good looking in his way,” she said.
“In his way?” said Bunty.
I noticed Guy trying not to laugh.
“It’s his teeth, isn’t it?” said Thelma sadly. “He’s gone too far with his teeth.”
“Well, no…” Bunty looked over to me for help.
“They’re new,” I said to clarify. “He’s still breaking them in.”
At this point, Guy let out a guffaw.
Thelma tutted, seeing her chance to sort out Bunty’s life slip away. She turned to him and tried to explain. “They cost Frank a fortune. His front ones got knocked out when he tripped over a hose, but then last month he had a little win on the Pools, so he thought, Why not? So he had them all taken out and bought himself a smashing new set.”
“My grandmother did exactly the same,” I said. “Never ate toffee again.”
“Shame,” said Guy philosophically.
“Thel, I’m terrifically pleased for Frank and his teeth,” Bunty said calmly, “but I’m very happy being a spinster. For now at least.”
“So you won’t rule it out?” Thel leapt at her chance. “Even if it’s not Frank?”
Bunty sighed, but with a smile. “I won’t rule it out. But I’m not ruling it in, either. Now can we please change the subject?”
“Good idea,” said Guy, rather coming to the rescue. “Is it too awful of me to mention work on Emmy’s birthday? It’s just that I have a small piece of news.”
“He’s going to give me the sack, isn’t he?” I said, not remotely worried.
“Can you imagine?” laughed Bunts. “It’ll be twenty years’ time and everyone will still be trying not to mention The Time Guy Sacked His Brother’s Wife on Her Birthday.”
We all laughed. The fact that I had married my boss’s half-brother was always a source of good-natured teasing.
“You do realise that makes it sound as if I only work at Woman’s Friend thanks to nepotism,” I said. “Can I just remind everyone that I joined before I met Charles? But anyway, yes, of course I’d like to hear some news. What is it?”
Guy took a pristine handkerchief out of his pocket, gave it a shake, and then removed his spectacles and began to clean them with it. “Well,” he said, “this is probably quite dull, but I’ve just heard that we’re going to be getting a new publisher.”
“Really?” I said, sitting up. “Do we know who? How did you find out?”
This wasn’t dull news at all. Our old publisher, Lord Overton, had been the much respected and revered owner of Launceston Press and a titan in the newspaper world for over forty years. Two months ago, everyone had been terribly sorry to learn that he had died.
“I heard it through the grapevine on Friday,” said Guy. “I believe her name is Mrs. Porter.”
“That’s exciting,” I said. As far as I had seen, publishers were very nearly always men. “Although it does bring home that Lord Overton really has gone.”
“I know,” said Guy. “I miss him.” He turned to Thel and Bunts. “Years ago, Overton gave me a job at a time when no one else would. It could have been a dreadful mistake, but he gave me a chance. It’s not something you forget.” He put his glasses back on. “His Lordship was a very decent man. And,” he added briskly, “he left us alone to run Woman’s Friend as we liked. That was also good.”
This was an understatement to say the least. You could have argued that the owner of one of the largest publishing companies in the country had bigger things on his mind than the day-to-day running of a weekly women’s magazine, but Guy and I were both well aware that Lord Overton had taken an almost benevolent approach to the publication he had launched nearly fifty years ago. He had stuck by us when things had been difficult and congratulated us when we’d had success. His were very large shoes to fill.
“Do you have the scoop on Mrs. Porter?” I asked, keen to hear more. “You know everyone who’s ever been anything to do with magazines.”
“Thank you, that makes me sound about eighty,” said Guy, who was not yet fifty-one. “I don’t, actually. I’m trying to find out.”
“I wonder what she’s like,” I mused. “Do you think she’ll like what we’re doing? I hope so. She should be impressed with the business side. It’s been going really well.”
As I launched into more questions, Guy held his hands up. “Hold your horses,” he said. “We’ll know more tomorrow. I have a meeting with the directors. Now, no more talk of work today. My fault for bringing it up. Tell me, Bunty, have you found a new lodger yet?”
Bunty grinned and picked up the hint to get me off the subject of work.
For nearly a year, we’d had a series of paying guests living in the flat at the top of the house. With just the two of us rattling around, it had seemed wrong not to, as there was a huge shortage of accommodation in London. It had all started through a friend of Bunty’s who was in the Women’s Voluntary Service and keenly involved with billeting and rehousing. When she had mentioned an elderly lady who was struggling to find lodgings where she felt safe, Bunts had immediately offered the flat.
Despite our initial concerns that it was on the top floor and thus something of a trek, our first guest turned out to have the conformation of a gazelle and spent a cheery month with us before finding somewhere permanent of her own.
From then on, the flat had become temporary home to a succession of women, one or two of whom had become good friends of ours. As Bunty had said, it finally felt as if the big old house was pulling its weight in the war.
“Not yet,” said Bunty. “I just hope the next one doesn’t have quite such bad insomnia as Mrs. Croxton.”
I smiled. Our last lodger had neglected to mention that the only way she could get off to sleep was after a series of rather loud jumping jacks.
“Tricky,” said Guy. “Mind you, doesn’t your next-door neighbour have a lodger who plays the trombone? Isn’t that quite a noise?”
“You mean Buzz,” I replied. “She’s wonderful. And she never plays late at night.”
“We like Buzz,” said George.
“She’s in an all-girls big band,” added Marg, “and she’s going to give me lessons if I want.”
“Which is very exciting,” said Thelma. “Fingers out of your ears, please, Stanley.”
“Anyway,” said Bunty, moving on, “we need to set up some interviews as soon as Emmy and I are both free.”
“Absolutely,” I said. Finding time to do anything was always a challenge. When I wasn’t at my job as an advice columnist at Woman’s Friend magazine, I was working at the local fire station as a telephonist. “I’m sure we could do it some time this week.”
“I’m on nights this week until Thursday,” said Bunty as the two of us began to discuss our diaries.
After a few moments, I noticed that Stan was sitting very politely with his hand up. “Are you OK, Stan?” I asked.
Stan nodded. “Yes, thank you,” he said, and then paused. “Um, Bunty, would we be allowed to come, please?”
“To the lodger interviews?” said Bunts, knowing he enjoyed joining in. “To be honest, love, they’re probably a bit boring.”
But Stan shook his head. “No,” he said, “I meant could we come and live with you?”
“Stan!” said Thelma.
“It’s just that we always have good fun here and you’ve got a garden and a shed, which would be ever so good for guinea pigs.”
“I’m so sorry,” said Thel. “Really, Stanley.”
“Not at all,” said Bunty, “it would be lovely. But, Stan, you’ve only been in your flat a few months.”
“I like it here too,” said Marg. “Ours makes George’s chest go funny.”
George nodded. “Asthma,” he said seriously, “but I’m all right.”
“It turns out we’ve got damp,” admitted Thelma. “It’s entirely my fault. I should have known when we first looked at it in January and the landlord had all the windows open. But it’s fine. Now, come on, you lot, I think it’s probably time to go home.”
“Why on earth didn’t you say?” interrupted Bunty, looking as horrified as I felt. “There’s tons of room here.”
“You’re very kind, Bunty,” said Thelma, “but I can’t come running to you just because I messed up with our flat.”
“But that’s exactly what you should do, you great chump,” I said, giving her a friendly shove with my elbow.
“There are four of us,” said Thel.
“There’s plenty of room here,” said Bunts again. “The boys could have one room in the flat, and if you and Marg don’t mind sharing, then…”
“I DON’T MIND,” shouted Margaret.
“Or you could use the other bedrooms downstairs,” said Bunty, thinking out loud.
“We’ll sleep anywhere,” said Stanley. “Oh, can we, Mum, please? It’ll be good for George.”
George wheezed dramatically.
“Well done,” whispered Guy, who then added loudly, “Dear me, old man, you do sound ropey.”
“We could pool our resources,” I said, “if we all cooked and ate together.”
“It would make the coupons go further,” said Bunty, “and with three of us it would make shopping easier too.”
“Six,” said George, miraculously recovered. “We don’t mind queuing, do we?”
“IT’S MY FAVOURITE,” cried Marg, which was news to the rest of us.
“Bunty, would you like a guinea pig?” asked Stan.
“I’ll have a think,” said Bunts kindly. She turned to Thelma. “Honestly, Thel, please come. It would help all of us, wouldn’t it, Em?”
“Gosh, yes,” I said, “and I can’t think of anything more fun than to come home from a long day at work with my awful old boss and see all of you. It would be lovely. This is the best birthday present ever.”
Guy smiled. “Mrs. Jenkins,” he said, “would you please put us all out of our misery and say that you’ll move into the flat?”
We all looked at Thel as the children held their breath.
“I must admit, it does sound wonderful,” she said. “We’d obviously pay rent and pay our way on all the expenses just as anyone else would.”
“Hmm,” said Bunty. “We can talk about that another time.”
“Hurrah!” I cried before she could waver. “Thel, hand in your notice to your rotten landlord tomorrow and move in as soon as possible. You’ll be closer to the children’s schools too,” I threw in for good measure.
“Double hurrah!” said Guy as the children looked unconvinced.
Thelma nodded thoughtfully. “If you’re absolutely sure?”
“We are,” said Bunty, very firmly indeed. “Now, I think that’s all the questions answered.”
Stanley put his hand up again.
“Yes, Stan,” said Bunts.
“Mr. Collins,” he said thoughtfully, “are you really eighty?” He was staring at Guy in the same way that people marvel at Stonehenge. “Eighty,” he said again. “That’s even older than our nan.”