A PROLOGUE to A Sister for Margot
Stepping through the double doors
with their smudged panes, Maud fancied she was crossing some magical threshold.
Outside on the pavement, the growling buses and the rap of busy heels had
grated on her nerves, but here in the fug of the teashop, she felt insulated
and safe. Conscious that he might be inside, watching the door, she
moved past the bread counter and slipped off her coat with her eyes cast
No voice, however, called out from the row of tables to claim her, and
after scanning the room for a particular set of uniformed shoulders, she
experienced a stab of disappointment. She had counted on him being there.
Already her notion of how their reunion would play out had been frustrated.
With enforced nonchalance, she sat down at an empty table and picked up the
tariff sheet to shield her face from any aimless stares. Then she occupied
herself in removing her gloves, finger-by-finger, and laying them carefully on
waited for a nippy to take her order, she studied the brown filigree of tea
stains on the tablecloth, resisting the impulse to drum her fingernails. She
glanced surreptitiously at her wristwatch, not wishing to give the impression
that she was waiting for someone.
“Can I help
“Oh yes, a
large cup of China tea please – it doesn’t matter about the milk – and a
Chelsea bun if you have one.”
From a table
to her side, she sensed the gaze of an elderly couple, intent on everything but
themselves. She tossed her head with such defiance that a tortoiseshell comb
worked itself loose. Yanking it free, she ploughed it back through her curls. Why
was he so blinking late? She looked out of the grimy window, willing him to
walk by. The West End looked drab in the slanted light of the afternoon.
behind Maud came free so she decided to swap tables to escape the attention of
the elderly couple. In her new spot, she retrieved a handkerchief from her
handbag and swept away the crumbs littering the cloth. The nippy returned with
the tea, her brow wrinkled in confusion until she spotted Maud’s impatient
your gloves, Miss,” she scolded as she set down the teacup.
suddenly, he was there, standing before her, looking desperately apologetic.
For all her anticipation, it was a shock to see him, flesh and bone. It had
been several months since their last meeting. She got up awkwardly to greet
him, but the angles of the booth prevented her from straightening her legs. He
bent to kiss her on the lips, just briefly.
“I’m so sorry
Maud. We sprung a puncture. I thought we would never make it, but we fixed it
in the end. I was hopping mad thinking of you here, waiting for me.”
beginning to think you weren’t coming,” she replied. “How much time do you
“About a half
hour and then I’ve got to get back before they notice I’m missing.”
The relief of
seeing him was beginning to dispel some of her irritation. His presence made
her feel both shy and tearful. They held hands under the table. Despite
everything that had happened, she experienced a frisson of excitement, sitting
so close to him again.
“You are a
real beauty, Maudy,” he said, squeezing her hand. “Is that a new blouse?” He
studied her closely, his dark eyes appraising her with unconcealed intent. She
was delighted that he had noticed her new acquisition.
“Oh do you
like it, darling? Daddy let me have his coupons,” she said lightly. “Audrey’s going
to be livid when she finds out.” Then, as she finished speaking, her smile fell
matter?” he said, sounding concerned. “What was it you so needed to talk to me
you order first and then we’ll talk. There are sardines on toast, if you would
like them,” she added, trying to sound composed. For weeks she had planned this
encounter. Now she was stalling, reluctant to mar their time together. Absently,
she rubbed at the smear of red lipstick soiling the rim of her teacup.
his order, he turned to her, expectant. Something in her manner made him feel
apprehensive. “You’re not going to finish with me Maud, are you?” He couldn’t
bring himself to look at her in case the expression in her eyes confirmed his
She made a
strange, guttural sound, somewhere between a snort and sigh. Just as he was
experiencing the first pangs of mortification, she started to tremble.
“Oh I have
such bad news. I think… I mean I know I’m… Oh God, I can’t say it.”
to stare at her, his lack of comprehension only too evident. She inhaled deeply
and let go of his hand under the table.
she said, sounding more certain this time. “I’m going to have a baby.”
dropped open in disbelief, giving her a curious feeling of gratification. His
thoughts jammed and he couldn’t think of anything worthwhile to say.
absolutely certain, I mean, is it definitely...”
The memory of
their time together was still fresh, played over and over in his head like a
favourite gramophone record. It had been a night to remember – after all it was
not often that he swung from despair to elation in just a few hours. She alone had the capacity to inspire
spectacular flights of emotion.
Maud knew he was re-living those moments together, unwilling to re-cast them in
this negative light. She had also reached back to that memory, before it had
become sullied by the shock of her pregnancy. Now, sitting in the café, she
tried to recall the night, as it was then, without consequences. She had
instigated it, goaded him on. It had felt like every nerve in her body hankered
after his touch. It wasn’t rational. She had felt tipsy – though she hadn’t
consumed a drop – and reckless. “Are you sure, are you sure?” he had asked
urgently. As an answer, she had pulled him towards her, clenching his back with
“But we were
careful,” he said wearily, shaking his head, still loath to accept the news.
enough!” she said severely, taking a small piece of revenge for the anguish she
had suffered alone for so many weeks.
“I just can’t
believe this has happened,” his voice faltered as he held his head in his
hands, stretching the skin across his forehead. For a fleeting moment, he
thought: maybe it’s not mine, maybe she went with someone else. But then
he glanced up at the pale, stricken face and felt only guilt for doubting her.
With silent remorse, he laid his hand along the side of her face. His chest
tightened as she nestled her cheek in his palm.
he was exultant. “We’ll get married!” It was simple, so clear. “We’ll turn this
into something to celebrate. We’ll make it alright, Maud, you’ll see.” He was
almost gabbling now. “There should only be a month or so before my next leave –
interrupted him. “It doesn’t make a blind bit of difference. My life has
already been ruined,” she said in a whisper. Her words deflated him and he knew
what was coming next. “What about my work?” she hissed. “You know I don’t want
a family, or not yet anyway. And everything is going so well – Harry told me
that I could play the lead next month.”
tumbled out in spurts, while tears started to roll down her cheeks. He, now
feeling unequal to the situation, tried to swab them away with his thumb.
understand me at all, do you?” she said, knowing her words would cut him.
If he was
entirely honest with himself, he wasn’t sure that he did. He could understand
the glamour of the stage and the excitement it afforded her, but didn’t every
woman dream about becoming a wife and a mother? It hadn’t taken long to realise
that she was the girl for him – only her fierce and unnatural independence had
made him wary of broaching the subject of matrimony. But he dismissed these
thoughts, concentrating all of his being on soothing her.
say that. I know it’s hard for you, but it will get better. When this bloody
war is over, I’ll finish my degree and get a good job – I’ll have prospects.
And then later, you can carry on with your acting.” He looked beseechingly at
her and felt enormous relief as she smiled weakly.
right,” she managed, her passion spent.
“What are you
going to do now? Are you going to go home?” he asked, anxious to settle
practical details while she seemed more amenable.
carry on working for as long as I can. I’m catching the train home tonight for
a few days – I’ll tell my parents that we are engaged to be married – shall I?
Mummy would be horrified if she ever found out the truth. I doubt she would
ever forgive me. Oh God, I’m so ashamed!” Maud covered her face with her hands.
it will be fine,” he said anxiously. “You just tell them that we are going to
get married and we’ll have a ring on your finger before anyone knows any
different. These things happen all the time, Maud. Would you like me to speak
to your father?”
Maud sat up
alarmed. “No, no, not yet. I’ll need to talk to him first. Of course they are
over the moon at the moment because Audrey’s pregnant again.” She said this
with some bitterness.
blimey, they don’t waste any time!”
we, it seems,” Maud replied tartly.
not to risk a smile. Instead, he hung his head, waiting for Maud to set the
darling,” she said, touching his cheek. “I’m so glad I’ve told you now. It felt
horrible before when only I knew.” She looked at her wristwatch. “Oh no, you
have to go,” she added regretfully.
upright in his chair as he registered the time. “Will you look after yourself?
You have to eat properly Maud!” She looked evasive. “As soon as we have sorted
this out, you’ll be allowed orange juice and cod liver oil in your ration.”
“How do you
chap at the barracks and his Missus is pregnant. He says she’s allowed orange
juice whenever it’s available.”
some money down on the table, he reluctantly began to slide out of the booth.
On straightening his legs, he reached into his pocket. “Oh, I almost forgot.
This is for you.”
He handed her
a book in a brown paper bag. She pulled out The
Works of Tennyson, bound in brown leather with gold lettering, and read the
inscription on the flysheet. “Charm and beauty alone give me more happiness
than good poetry.”
treasure it,” she said, looking up at him. “When will we see each again?” she
“In less than
a month,” he said, with more conviction than he felt.
those rumours that they might be sending you to sea again?”
nothing definite,” he replied, guarded. “Now you’ll let me know how your
parents take the news. And make sure you tell them we’re eager to be married as
soon as we can.”
After he had
left her, she reached inside her handbag for her compact. Licking her
handkerchief, she rubbed away the sooty traces of mascara around her eyes. For
a while longer, she sat there, her eyes fixed in thought, her fingers riffling
idly through the pages of the book. Then, with sudden resolve, she snapped her
compact shut and reached for her gloves. With the book clasped close to her
chest, she passed back through the doors at the front of the shop and stepped
outside into the smog-thick air.