Sunday read - Coral´s Story. Book 2 in the Sisters at War Trilogy
She had always hated her name. Her sisters could lay claim to lovely names; Ruby was alright. Nice name, Ruby. Even her pesky little sister had been named Pearl, and nothing wrong with that for a name. Both of them the sort of name you could tell someone, and not expect them to snigger. But Coral? What kind of name was that? Coral was some sort of fish, wasn't it? Might as well be called "Cod" or "Haddock", and have done with it. As soon as she thought she would get away with it, Coral demanded that she was to be called Cora. Cora, not bloody Coral.
Ma had shrugged, she had thought Coral was a really lovely name, something a bit different, that was why she had chosen it, but if her stubborn second daughter didn´t like it, then she supposed that Cora it would have to be. It got worse, of course, when Pearl arrived. Why, if Ma wanted to call her daughters after jewels, couldn´t she have given Cora the name Pearl? Pearl was a good, girlish sort of name.
In any event, Cora hated her little sister from the day of her christening.
It didn´t help, of course, the way Ruby cooed over her. Ruby was her big sister. Her friend. Ruby paid attention to Rose, of course, but that was alright. Rose was a good little girl, no trouble to anybody. Sweet little thing, Rose was. But Pearl!
Pearl had not only stolen the name that should rightfully have been Cora's, but she was also stealing her sister as well. Cora could see that immediately. Oh, no. She could not allow that. Pearl, Cora realised quickly, was a sly little thing. Nasty, that's what she was. Just look how she was growing up to look exactly like Rose, the nice sister. Cunning, that’s what Pearl was. Devious.
But Cora knew. And Cora would keep an eye on her.
"You´re just plain daft, Cora." Ruby opinioned. "She´s only a kid. Nothing wrong with her. And she can´t help looking like Rose."
"You'll see." Cora said darkly. "You just wait a bit. She´s going to be trouble is that one."
Cora thought, smugly, that Ma agreed with her about Pearl. She couldn´t say so, of course, but Cora could tell. Very carefully, she let Ma know that she understood. If a pot got broken, Cora was quick to tell Ma that Pearl had been near it last. If a window was left open to slam, then it was always Pearl's fault. And she let it be known that Pearl told fibs, as well. Only little ones, of course, but that wasn't the point.
She remembered the day that she had pinched Pearl extra viciously for some imagined slight - or possibly because she had just felt like having a go at her - and Pearl had gone running to Ma, telling her that Cora had done it. Cora, of course, denied everything, and was gratified when Ma tutted at Pearl for telling lies. Why, she demanded, was Pearl always making things up about her poor sister? Pearl had looked up at Ma with those huge blue eyes, full of reproach, but it had done no good. Cora had seen that. And given Pearl an extra pinch for good measure as soon as she got her on her own.
She tittle-tattled to Rose, as well, Cora knew. But Rose was a placid, sweet child who took life as it came, and she simply shrugged when Pearl confided in her. Cora was never bad to her, why should she be so different to Pearl? Cora heard her asking. Cora was quite gleeful about it.
It wasn't fair, either, that Ma spent so much time with the new baby. Had Pearl been yet another boy, Cora wouldn't have minded. Boys had to come first, that was just a fact of life. But Pearl was just a girl. Not fair!
But Cora was clever. She soon realised that Ma had a soft spot for the needy, for the helpless. That, of course, was why she was so soppy with Pearl, who was the baby of the family at first. It all became clear when Cora caught her leg on a splinter in the shop counter. She didn´t worry about it at the time, but the scratch festered and Ma had to put iodine on it for her. As soon as the scratch started to heal, Ma stopped fussing over her. Cora thought about it for a while, and scratched the scab off with her nail. It bled in a very satisfactory manner, and Ma was instantly worried, reaching for the iodine again, and a bandage. Cora kept the wound open as long as she could, but when Ma said if it didn´t heal soon, she would be left with a scar, she stopped picking at it. Instead, she began to nip and squeeze at anything that looked like a pimple, and could be made to bleed. Not on her face, of course, that would show to everybody. But her arms and legs, they were fine. And better still, after a while Ma was convinced that she had got impetigo, and took her to the doctor. Doctor Hammond was baffled. Not impetigo, he said. But he didn´t know what it was. He prescribed cream for her, and Ma rubbed it on every night. Cora was delighted. She worked things out carefully, and only picked at one area long enough to ensure that she didn´t leave a permanent mark. And then moved on to another. And still Ma nattered over her.
In any event, Cora knew that Pearl was to blame for everything. Life had been so much better when it was just her and Ruby, the two girls together against the world. The boys didn´t count, of course. The year Pearl had been born they had been unable to go for the annual summer holiday. Ma tried to tell them that it was because of the war, but Cora knew perfectly well it was actually because of Pearl. Ma had been too tired to bother, because of the new baby. Bloody Pearl! She knew this to be true when, in spite of the War (everybody thought of it as the "War" with a capital letter, by now) the next year Ma announced that they would be going to Patrington as usual. Cora was delighted, the more so as Ruby would be coming. Ruby said it would probably be the last time she came with them, as she would be working by next year. We´ll make it a good ´un, she said, and Cora was gleeful.
It seemed that the War hadn't touched Patrington. Hull had come as a bit of a shock; the docks had suffered heavy bombing from the German zeppelins, and the whole town seemed to be greyer than she remembered. That was a shame; although Hull was much smaller than Leeds, Cora had always liked it. She liked the twang of the Hull accent, and the way the town was so self-contained. Leeds just sprawled on forever. But they were only in Hull centre for the length of time it took to go from the train station to the bus station, so the war damage didn´t matter greatly to her.
The bus was empty, and the conductor persisted in chattering to Ma. About the War, of course. Had Leeds been greatly affected, he wondered? Ma said it had, that times were very hard, but Cora thought she was fibbing. She hadn't noticed anything different in Leeds. Not at all.
And anyway, Patrington was still Patrington. The bus driver stopped, obligingly, at the entrance to the Dodgson´s small holding and the Beardsley family scrambled off. Eddie had stayed at home, to give Pa a hand in the shop, and Ruby had shrugged, saying cheerfully that she hoped he would enjoy himself. Eddie had said, with his usual arrogance, that anything was better than being holed up at a dump like Patrington with his sisters. Cora decided he was just jealous, and it would be far more fun without him, anyway. They still had Sam and Jim with them, but they were alright, as far as brothers went. Rose was her usual sweet self, all smiles. Just a pity about Pearl.
The Dodgsons came out to welcome them, as always, and to help with the cases. To Cora's fury, Mrs. Dodgson immediately picked Pearl up, full of compliments over the newest addition to the family.
"My lord, but doesn´t she look the image of Rose, when she was her age? Both little beauties, aren't they?"
Cora hovered around the edges, hoping that she would be noticed and petted, but got nothing more than a quick peck on the cheek from Mrs. Dodgson and a nod from her husband. Bloody, bloody Pearl. Nothing but a thief, stealing the attention that should have been Cora's. She was sure, absolutely sure, that in previous years it had been her that had got all the attention.
But it didn´t matter. Ruby was there. And nothing would be allowed to come between them.
The family settled in quickly. Ma sat in the kitchen, drinking tea and catching up with Mrs. Dodgson. Mr. Dodgson - as always, a man of few words - melted away into the garden. Sam and Jim dashed off, Sam suddenly forgetting he was no longer a child in the excitement of finding trees to climb and gooseberries to steal.
Rose sat at Ma´s feet, happily playing with the pick-up sticks provided by Mrs. Dodgson. Pearl simply sat, staring into space, her blue eyes dreamy. Was she, Cora wondered, simple? Now there was a thing! What if she turned out to be daft? She hoped not. That would mean that she would stay as Ma´s baby forever. No, that really would not do. Cora made sure that she caught her little sister with her toe as she passed, and was pleased to get a reproachful look in return.
Ruby flicked her head at Cora, and both sisters turned and went out. Ma shouted after them to take care, and not be long, and Ruby called something reassuring back.
The bus service into Withernsea was excellent. Cora was practically jumping up and down with excitement as they boarded. Ruby handed over their pennies, and the two girls - greatly daring - went upstairs and sat on the front seat, swaying with the motion of the bus as it went round the bends in the narrow road.
To both girls, Withernsea - and to a lesser extent, as it was less well known to them, Hornsea - was The Seaside. Ruby said it was quieter than usual, must be the War, and Cora agreed with her solemnly. Ruby bought them both candyfloss, and they walked along the beach happily, hand in hand, the sticky floss adhering to faces and hands alike. Halfway along, a Punch and Judy booth had been erected, and for a few minutes both girls forgot that they were far too old for such juvenile entertainment and joined in the shouts of "He´s behind you!" with gusto.
Whenever she thought of her childhood, it was that picture that came to Cora's mind. Her and Ruby, braving the blustery sea wind, nibbling at pink candyfloss and promenading up and down in front of the blue, blue sea. Laughing with the little kids at a second-rate Punch and Judy.
But Pearl seemed determined to be a nuisance. What ever Cora and Ruby got up to at Patrington, Pearl and Rose wanted to trail along behind them.
"They´re only kids." Ruby said indulgently. "Don´t worry about them."
Cora thought it was Pearl who was dragging Rose along with her, but said nothing, for fear of annoying Ruby. It wasn't long before she thought of a way to get rid of Pearl, anyway.
There was a swing in the Dodgson´s garden. Not much of a swing, just a plank of sawn wood attached by ropes to a sturdy branch, but still, an unending item of fun to the Beardsley siblings. Jim had once managed to get the swing so high that his feet had got tangled in the branches of the tree opposite, and Cora had nearly wet herself laughing at his attempts to get free without falling off the swing. Sam had climbed up, eventually, and got him free, sending the swing crashing down after him.
Cora waited until Ruby was out of the way, knowing instinctively that her big sister would guess what she was up to, and stop her before she could start. She swung too and fro idly on the swing, trailing her toe on the ground. Rose and Pearl watched her, Rose with her thumb in her mouth and Pearl, as always, all eyes.
"Want a go?" Cora invited. Rose immediately held her arms up, and Cora settled her into the swing carefully, telling her to hold on to the ropes. She pushed her back and forth gently, ignoring Rose's demands to go higher.
"Your turn." Cora smiled sweetly at Pearl, helping Rose down and settling Pearl in her place.
She began to push, very gently at first, then harder. And higher. Pearl hung on with all her little strength, shrieking with pleasure. Until Cora caught her little sister's skirt in her fingers as she pushed, and suddenly Pearl was flying through the air.
Even Cora was worried as she hit the ground with a sickening thump. For a second, Cora was sure she had killed her, and she was torn between fear and pleasure. If Pearl was dead, then that would be good. On the other hand, would they make Cora go to prison for killing her? But then Pearl gave a great scream, and Cora rushed up to her, trying her best to pretend that she was worried.
Pearl had hurt her wrist. Ma was beside herself, and under instruction from his wife, who told him not to fuss about petrol rationing, Mr. Dodgson got his old Ford out and drove them into Hull, to the Infirmary. As soon as they had gone, Ruby cornered her.
"What did you do to her, for God's sake?"
Cora let her lower lip quiver, pretending hurt.
"Nothing, honest. Rose wanted to go on the swing, and I gave her a push. As soon as she got off, Pearl wanted a go, and I was just pushing her nice and gentle like when she must have let go, and she fell off."
"Cross your heart and hope to die?"
Cora promptly suited action to words, and crossed her heart. She also spat on her palm for good measure, and held her hand up towards Ruby.
"See this wet, see this dry. May I die if I tell a lie."
She was sure, absolutely sure, that Ruby couldn´t see that she had the fingers of her other hand crossed, behind her back. Which made it alright to tell a fib, of course. And Ruby believed her, anyway, which was what mattered.
It turned out that Pearl had broken her wrist. Which was a great shame, as it meant that she got more attention than ever, both from Ma and the Dodgson´s. Cora did her best to appear terribly remorseful, and was delighted when she found she was also petted, and told not to worry, it wasn't her fault.
It was that year that Cora decided that she loved Hull, and loved Patrington even more. When she was grown up, and the old mad lady in Althea House next door to the Dodgson´s died, Cora made her mind up that she would buy Althea House and live there. She told Ruby that, and Ruby raised her eyebrows at her.
"Dunno about that, our Cora. I like Althea House as well. I´m older than you, I might beat you to it."
For the first time, Cora looked at her elder sister with something other than unconditional love.
"Mine." She thought silently. "Mine."
Cora was deeply unhappy when Ruby started work. She still adored her elder sister, and to find her suddenly absent for all hours, and more often than not in bed when she was at home, made her unhappy and fidgety. She had nobody else to talk to, now Ruby had deserted her. She was sure that Ruby didn´t have to work, she could easily have stayed at home and helped Pa in the shop. Had she turned against her little sister? Cora was the first to notice that Ruby was turning a strange shade of yellow, and she mentioned it to her cautiously, hiding her glee very carefully. Much as she loved Ruby, she was just a little wary of her temper.
"Looked in the mirror lately, Ruby?"
Ruby stared at her suspiciously, assuming she was about to make a crack about smudged lipstick or too much powder. Cora spoke hastily.
"It´s probably just the light, but your skin seems to be going a funny colour."
"Hell's teeth." Cora thought the phrase very adult, and stowed it away carefully for future use. "It´s the cordite we work with. Turns you into a Chinaman. I´ll have to start drinking more milk, that's the only cure they reckon. I hate the stuff as well."
Cora beamed, pleased that she had been the one who noticed. The one who had mentioned it to Ruby. And although she would not acknowledge it even to herself, pleased that her attractive elder sister was suddenly flawed.
She was delighted when Ruby came home unexpectedly one day. She had been dodging Pa for hours, knowing that he was going to grab her to candle the trays of eggs in the back room. All the siblings hated candling. It wasn't just the boredom - holding egg after egg after egg up to the candle light, to make sure they didn´t contain a fertilized baby chick - but the back storeroom was cold and dark, and there were furtive shuffling noises that had to be rats. Pa was constantly putting poison down for them, but there were never any corpses to show for it.
Cora knew what rats looked like well enough. Especially dead ones. It was a favourite game of all the Beardsley siblings to poke along the streets, looking down the grates, until one of them spied the corpse of a rat. The more bloated the better - the gassier they were, the better they floated. Once seen, the children would follow the corpse from grate to grate, taking bets on how long it would take to pop up again, and how many grates it would travel before it either got stuck or disappeared, presumably down some unseen turning in the sewer. Sam was particularly good at the game, and usually walked away with a pocket full of marbles for his trouble.
But live rats! They were a different beast entirely. Cora shuddered at the thought of them. She decided that as soon as Pearl was old enough to hang on to the eggs without dropping them, she would show her what to do. The brat had to be good for something.
But now, she looked at Ruby with interest. Her elder sister seemed shaken, and for a second Cora wondered if she had got the sack. That would be good; it would mean she would spend more time at home again. With her. She smiled at her.
"Ey up, our Ruby. What you doing back already?"
"Accident at work." Ruby said shortly. "Nasty one. It … it'll be a day or two before my room's fit to work in again, so they sent all us girls home." Cora nodded, cheerfully accepting anything that Ruby said. Would she be allowed to sit on the bed for a chat, she wondered? Since Ruby had started working at Barnbow, it seemed to Cora that she had become an adult almost overnight, and Cora sorely missed the hours they had spent with their heads together, sharing day-dreams and planning a future that contained almost anything but working in the shop. With a sinking heart, Cora suddenly remembered that next time they went to Patrington, it was unlikely that Ruby would be with them. No fun, no fun at all!
She was deeply miserable at the knowledge, and her face sank into lines of sulky misery. Ruby must, she thought, have noticed her unhappiness as she suddenly said,
"Tell you what, Cora. I´ve got a bob or two in my bag, why don´t we get the tram into Leeds and have a bite to eat? It´s Friday, late night opening, and anyway it´s so close to Christmas there'll be plenty of shops open until late, even with the war."
Cora´ face lit up with pleasure, both at the unexpected invitation and the fact that her dear sister had noticed that she was unhappy. Good old Ruby!
Leeds sparkled with people. The lights, of course, were not as bright as they usually were - there was a war on, after all! - but the centre was still bustling and vigorous. Cora darted from shop to shop, towing Ruby after her, barely noticing that her sister seemed very quiet. She was here, wasn't she? That was enough.
It seemed to Cora barely an hour before Ruby was protesting that she was tired and hungry. They would go to a hotel, she said, for a bite to eat and a cup of tea. Cora looked at her in astonishment as she made for the Metropole.
"Bit posh, isn´t it, Ruby?"
Ruby raised her eyebrows and shrugged. Cora noticed for the first time how beautifully shaped Ruby's eyebrows were. Just like Clara Bow's were in the films. She was wearing lipstick, as well. Could she be persuaded, perhaps, to help Cora pluck her own rather straggly brows? She would ask her tomorrow.
Cora realised when they were seated that she was starving. She had missed tea at home, but this was much better anyway. The sandwiches were a bit on the dainty side, but the cakes and scones were lovely, and the Metropole was much more generous with the butter than Ma was. She dug in with a will, and was deeply hurt when Ruby said she would get fat.
"I´m not fat, am I?"
"I didn´t say you were." Ruby smiled.
Cora glanced down at herself, and then at her sister. Ruby was, certainly, slim. Much thinner than she was. But then, Ruby smoked quite a lot and she knew that made women thin. Perhaps she should learn to smoke?
"I´m sorry, do you think I could share your table? I´m sure I know you."
Cora nearly choked on her sandwich. She glanced up and saw that Ruby's face had set into what she thought of as her "School Ma´am" expression; offended and not a little stern. Cora stared from her sister to the young man who had appeared at the side of their table. He was gorgeous. A really nice face and so well built. Please Ruby, she thought. Please, don´t snap at him. Please don´t send him away. Ruby was glaring at him, but as Cora watched her anxiously, her expression relaxed and became slightly puzzled. Yes, go for it! Cora thought.
"I might be wrong," he smiled at Ruby. "But I think you work at Barnbow, don´t you?"
Ruby's brow furrowed, and then she clicked her fingers.
"Of course! You´re one of the carpenters, aren't you? You came round and mended one of our trestle tables last week. Sorry, I didn´t recognize you out of overalls."
"That's right, I did. Could I possibly?" The nice young man looked hopefully at one of the chairs at their table, and Cora sent up a silent prayer of gratitude as Ruby allowed him to sit with them. He smiled widely, revealing excellent teeth, slightly stained with nicotine. "Thanks so much. I hate being in these places on my own. Nobody to talk to, don´t know where to look. Takes all the fun out of it."
Cora watched him, totally unaware that she was staring quite blatantly. Why, she wondered, was Ruby glaring at her like that? Of course, she thought. She wants this nice young man to herself. Well hard lines, it´s me he's looking at, not you. Me!
To Cora's disappointment, he held his hand out for Ruby to shake, and smiled at her.
"Vic. Vic Prentiss. And I know your name. It´s Ruby, isn´t it?"
"It is. But how do you know that?"
"I asked somebody." He said simply. "I wanted to know who that cracking girl was, so I could talk to you next time I saw you. I had no idea it would be this quickly, though!"
Cora's smile froze into place. Oy! She wanted to shout. Never mind about Ruby. Me! It´s me you should be interested in. But Ruby was smiling now, clearly intent on diverting attention from her.
"This is my little sister, Cora." Cora smiled, trying not to turn it into a silly grin. "Cora, it turns out that we work at Barnbow together."
Cora sat up as straight as she could, intent on smoothing out any hint of fat around her middle. She saw Vic's gaze running down her body and was delighted when he smiled at her. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it, Ruby! He pulled a packet of cigarettes out of his pocket and handed them round. Remembering her earlier thoughts about smoking making you slim, Cora accepted one and tried not to choke on the hot smoke.
Cora was enchanted by Vic Prentiss. He really had paid attention to her, hadn't he? Was that all lies he had told Ruby, about seeing her at work and asking her name? Had that, perhaps, just been an excuse to talk to her, Cora? Cora rather thought that it had. She decided that Ruby thought so as well, and wasn't too happy about it, as before long she snapped at Cora and told her to shut up about him. Jealous, she thought complacently. Jealous.
It was a delicious feeling, and Cora hugged it to her.