Sisters at War - Ruby´s Story
A long first chapter today .... a story of relationships, war and above all 3 determined women...
She had always known what she wanted. Always known that she would get it. How, that was an unknown, but it didn´t matter. It would happen. She was sure of that. Quite, quite sure.
She would matter.
Her earliest memory was of Ma, packing for Ladies´ Day at Ascot Races. The big double bed was strewn with clothes; costumes, dresses, jackets, hats, shoes. As she watched, Ma picked up a hat that seemed to Ruby to be almost the size of a cartwheel, and placed it tenderly in a black, japanned hat box. Ruby watched seriously, her face puckered in thought.
Ma paused and ruffled her hair, laughing at her daughter's grave expression.
"Penny for your thoughts, Ruby."
Ruby frowned and tossed her head.
"I want to come."
Ma sighed and shook her head. She turned her back on Ruby to continue with her packing, and spoke to her daughter over her shoulder. Ruby pursed her lips sulkily.
Want to come. Don´t want to stay at home.
"I´ve told you and better told you, love. Little girls can´t go to the Races. It´s only for grown-ups. We´ll only be missing for three days, and you know you like staying with Granddad Beardsley. You can play in the garden. I´ll be nice for you."
"Want to come." Ruby muttered resentfully.
"You can´t love, and that's that. I tell you what, we´ll bring you something nice back, how does that sound?"
Ruby considered. Something nice sounded good to her. She didn´t really want to go to Ascot with Ma and Pa, she just wanted to make sure that they felt guilty about leaving her. Something nice would do. Grandpa always spoiled her anyway, so with a bit of luck she would get two presents. She beamed at Ma, who sighed in relief.
Something nice? Oh, yes!
Ruby had no idea what a "Bookie" was. Still less a "Bookie's Runner". She just knew that that was what Pa did. He must be good at it, she thought, as there were always good things to eat - except for liver, which she hated, and which Ma made her eat because it was "good for you" - and pretty clothes. Not just at Whitsuntide, when all the kids got new outfits, but quite often during the year. And if she nagged long enough, she got toys as well. Ma didn´t work, of course, she stayed at home and kept the house nice. It wasn't a very big house, but Ma kept it beautiful. Ruby knew that, because she had heard people say so.
Granddad's house was a lot bigger. It had a garden, as well, with a pond in it. Ruby adored the pond; she spent hours peering into its shallow depths, shrieking with delight when something moved. When the tadpoles mysteriously turned into baby frogs, she was beside herself. She couldn´t understand at all why Grandma shouted at her when she went into the house with a skirt-full of tiny frogs, and let them go so Grandma could join her in laughing at them hopping about. Ginger, Granddad's huge tom cat, found it all great fun. He caught ever so many of them. That was the only thing Ruby didn´t like about the frogs. When Ginger played with them, they screamed really loudly, and it sounded just like a baby screaming.
Odd, that. How could such a tiny thing make such a loud noise? Was that what Dad meant when he said funny things like "it´s empty barrels that make the most noise?"
Granddad laughed at the frogs, when he came home from the shop. That pleased Ruby no end and she decided that when she was grown up, she would have a house with a garden and a pond. She told Granddad so, when Ma and Pa went to Ascot. Without her.
"Will you now?" Granddad said. "Made your mind up about that, have you?"
Ruby nodded seriously.
"Daresay you'll get it, then."
Of course I will. Why did Granddad seem to find that so funny?
Granddad shooed Ginger out of his chair and sat down. The cat immediately jumped on to his knee and settled down, purring loudly. She liked Ginger as well, even when he made the frogs scream.
It was nice at Granddad and Grandma's. Ruby wasn't sure how old they both were, but she thought it was very old. A lot older than Ma and Pa, and they were both old. Both grandparents had lost the knack of having very young children about the house, and most of the time simply treated her like a small grown up.
She sat quietly, playing with the contents of Grandma's sewing box. It was a beautiful thing, worn shiny over many years of use and inlaid with what Grandma told her was called "mother of pearl." She liked the idea that pearls had mothers, and stroked the inlay with great respect. Amused, Grandma stenciled a simple embroidery pattern on a scrap of linen, and gave it to Ruby to sew. Ruby was hugely excited; Ma always kept anything with a sharp point well away from her, and here was Grandma giving her the run of her sewing box, needles and all. It took forever for her to thread her needle, but she refused all offers of help and finally managed it. Once threaded, she sat watching Grandma. Grandma's own needle flashed as she fashioned the most exquisite needle point; a huge tapestry showing a seated lady with a gentleman leaning over her shoulder. A little boy played a lute at their feet.
Gaining confidence, Ruby tried a few stitches, and then held her fabric at arms length. Dissatisfied, she unpicked her stitches and tried again. Third time, she was happy with the results and began to concentrate on her work, her little pink tongue protruding between her lips.
"I wish our Tom would settle down to a proper job, Fred." Grandma sounded unhappy, and Ruby watched her from beneath her eyelashes.
What was Grandma talking about? Pa had a proper job, didn´t he? He made books. Nothing wrong with that.
"Aye, lass. You and me both." Granddad blew out his cheeks. "It´s all very well him saying that being a Bookie's Runner brings the money in, I daresay it does. But it´s not legal. And he takes too many risks. He thinks he's got it pinned down to a fine art, and he's been lucky so far, but one of these days he's going to pocket one bet too many, just because he's certain that the horse has only got three legs and is bound to lose, and he's going to find a punter on his doorstep with his hand held out, not to mention the Bookie wanting to know what happened to his stake money. And if it´s an Accumulator or some such, you're talking real money."
"Why can´t he just do it at the races, that's what I want to know." Grandma sounded cross. "All nice and legal and above board if he's at the races. He can do that tick-tack signaling stuff as well, there´s not that many that have got it off pat like he has."
"No good talking about it, Evelyn. I´ve tried. I´ve offered him a full partnership in the shop, but he's not interested. Says he had enough of that when he was at home."
Grandma glanced at Ruby and nodded towards her husband.
"Enough said, Fred." She said. "As the saying goes, "Little pitchers have big ears."
Ruby poked her needle in and out idly, wondering what Grandma meant.
Pa had had a good time at Ascot. Ruby could tell. He was in a fine mood when he got home, and Ma was giggling like a little girl. He hadn't forgotten her present, either. A wooden Noah's Ark, stuffed full with animals. She had no idea at all what most of them were called. But it was wonderful anyway, and she had great fun spreading them all over the rug in front of the fire.
"Told you that treble would come off." Pa called to his wife as he undid his collar studs and eased the stiff collar away from his neck with a sigh of relief. "I had the tip from Captain White himself. Do y´know, he's setting up his own stables at Redcar? Give him a year or two, and he´ll be the man to watch."
"Yes, dear." It seemed to Ruby that Ma rarely said a lot more than "Yes, dear." She thought about asking Ma what Grandma had meant about jugs having ears, but decided against it. Ma would probably just say "I don´t know, dear."
Ruby had been born with the turn of the century. She had no idea why this was important, but Pa had once shown her something cut out of the "Yorkshire Post", which - amazingly for a newspaper which normally had nothing but pages of print - had a picture of a little baby on it.
"That's you." He said. She peered at the picture with interest, but could see nothing but a shawl with something that might have been a baby's head poking out of it. "You were one of the first babies born in Leeds in the new century, so that makes you special."
Special? She liked the sound of that. Special sounded …. Nice.
See? I was born special!
Ruby was not at all happy when her brother was born. She was almost three when Eddie arrived, and she peered at his wrinkled, red little face with distaste. A boy baby. When Ma told her that she was going to have a little brother or little sister, she had said her prayers very carefully at Sunday school, and had been convinced that the baby would be a little girl. She was enraged that God had chosen not to listen to her, and from that moment began to lose all interest in the Sunday school she had formerly enjoyed. Especially when Eddie turned out to be a noisy, restless baby who demanded constant attention. Attention that Ruby knew should have been hers by right. Because she was special. Eddie was just a boy.
What were you thinking of, God? Didn´t I ask you specially for a sister? Were you not listening, at all?
Coral arrived almost exactly two years after Eddie. Ruby didn´t bother to pray for a sister, this time; if God couldn´t be bothered to listen to her, why should she bother to ask him? But when Ma came home with a little girl, she was delighted. Coral was a good baby, a baby who slept a lot and lay in her cradle gurgling when she was awake. Ruby treated her like a doll, scooping the new baby up and carrying her around in her arms, her shawl trailing on the floor.
Ma seemed to be less her normal self after Coral arrived. She was tired all the time, and - far from telling Ruby off for monopolizing her new sister - she actually seemed pleased that she was taking an interest in her.
Ruby took to propping little Coral up in front of her dolls. Often, the baby fell sideways but Ruby picked her up patiently and tried to make sure she joined in. She also persuaded Grandma to show her how to crochet, and after a bit of practice began to turn out sweet little bonnets and shawls for her new toy.
And two years on again, yet another Beardsley sibling arrived. Sam was a big baby, who shouldered his way into the world bawling, and cried non-stop from the day he arrived home until nearly his first birthday. Christened Samuel Frederick Thomas, after his father and grandfather, it seemed to Ruby that her new brother was nothing but trouble. She was even more convinced that this was the truth when Granddad Fred died a couple of months after young Sam was born. The old man simply went to bed one night, and didn´t wake up in the morning. Ruby was heart-broken, and wept inconsolably when Ma broke the news to her.
"It´s the way of the world, love." Ma said sadly. "If the older ones don´t die, there would be no room for little people like you."
Not like me at all! Like Sam, you mean. He did this. He killed Grandpa. Stole his name and then killed him.
And when Ma wasn't looking, she pinched her new brother viciously, setting him off crying yet again.
Ruby thought that Sam had upset Ma, as well. She looked tired all the time, there were dark shadows under her eyes and all her old sparkle seemed to have gone entirely. She pinched Sam again for good measure, and was rewarded with an indignant bellow. Noisy brat she thought. "Brat" was a word she had heard old Mrs. Seely down the road use when one of the local kids upset her. Ruby had no idea what it meant, but she was certain it wasn't a good word, and so it was perfectly suited to Sam.
Ruby heard Pa and Ma talking about Grandpa. She listened carefully, pretending interest in rocking Coral to sleep. She had noticed that grown-ups didn´t talk in the same way when they thought somebody - usually her - was listening, so she pretended not to listen.
"Mam said he'd been complaining about having awful headaches for months, but the stubborn old sod wouldn't go to the doctor."
"Tom! That's no way to talk about your Dad." Pa shrugged and pulled a face. Her own face hidden in Coral's shawl, Ruby copied the expression carefully. It would, she thought, come in useful when she grew up. "In any event, from what your Mam said it wouldn't have made any difference. Didn´t she say that the doctor said it was an aneurism on his brain that killed him and nothing would have made any difference? It was better he went without knowing, without wondering if every day was going to be his last."
"Aye, I suppose you're right. You know, May, the old bugger always said he would get me into the bloody shop by hook or by crook, and now he's gone and done it, hasn't he?"
Ma sighed deeply and took a sip of her tea before she replied.
"You could always sell it, I suppose." She said doubtfully. "But would it be so bad, Tom? At least we'd have some money coming in regular. You know how I feel about you being a bookie's runner; one week we've got money coming out of our ears, and then nothing for the next month. And it´s not legal, either. You know the Sergeant down at the nick said next time you got copped it would be a stiff fine."
"Ah, but he's got to catch me first, hasn't he?" Pa grinned. "Oh, I know how you feel, love. I´ll give the shop a go. It might work out well enough; if my customers know where to find me, they can come and put a bet on and buy a cauliflower at the same time, eh?"
Ma said "Oh, you!" And gave Pa a little shove. Ruby realised this meant she was happy.
But fate had not finished with the Beardsley family yet, not by a long chalk.
Ma took to visiting Grandma Evelyn more and more often, now the old lady was alone. It wasn't a long walk to the house up in Cardigan Road - Grandpa had walked to and from the shop six days a week, right up to the end - but added to the time Ma spent there, she was often missing for whole afternoons or mornings at a time. Grandma wasn't the same since Granddad died, she told Ruby. She wasn't eating properly, and couldn´t be bothered to keep the house - or herself for that matter - clean. Ruby took it upon herself to help in the only way she knew how; if Ma wasn't at home to look after them, then she - Ruby - would do it. She watched Ma carefully, and learned to dust and polish and sweep. The "brats" behaved themselves for their big sister - even Sam learned quickly that if he bawled the reward would be a sharp pinch or even a slap if Ruby felt like it. Coral, of course, was exempt because Coral was Ruby's toy, and she could do no wrong.
And Ma was grateful to her. Often, she told Ruby she didn´t know how she would manage without her, and Ruby glowed with pride.
And then Grandma up and died.
Ruby was indignant. Hadn't Ma lavished attention on her? Spent time with her when she should have been at home? How dare she? Ruby didn´t know the word "ingratitude", but that was how she felt.
Ma took her daughter's silence as grief, and took the child on her knee to pet her. Ruby snuggled down contentedly, sucking her thumb (not something she usually did, but she noticed that when other little girls did it, their Ma invariably clucked over them fondly) and listened avidly to Ma discussing the tragedy with one of their neighbours.
"Such a dreadful thing, and her husband barely cold in his grave. Tom bearing up alright?"
"He´s upset, of course, what can you expect? But I can´t say as I was surprised." Ma shook her head sadly. "I told him it wouldn't be long, I could see she was going downhill every day."
Ma glanced down at Ruby, who promptly pretended to be dozing. Satisfied, Ma continued in almost a whisper.
"It was a blessing, really. Towards the end, she wasn't … she wasn't even clean in herself." The neighbour nodded understanding, clearly relishing her role as confidant. "The doctor told my Tom that if he could have put "Broken Heart" on her death certificate, he would have done. But he couldn´t, so he did the next best thing and put it down as Heart Failure. Truth is, she just didn´t want to go on living without her Fred."
"Aye, it´s sad for the old ones. You'll be moving soon, then?"
"We will. I´ll be sorry to go, but the house is nearly bursting at the seams as it is."
Ruby pricked her ears up at that. They were going to move to Granddad's house! She would have her garden, and her pond! She was so excited she could barely wait until the neighbour had gone to ask Ma about it.
But Ma shook her head.
"We´re not moving to Granddad's house, dear. We´re moving into the flat over the shop."
Ruby shook her head stubbornly. She knew what she had heard! But no, it seemed she was wrong.
"We can´t move into Granddad's, love. It wasn't his house - he didn´t own it. It belongs to somebody else, and he just lived there and paid rent for it. You know, like we do here. You see the Rent Man come round every week, don´t you?"
Ruby nodded, reluctantly. She understood, but she really couldn´t imagine Granddad pretending not to be in when the Rent Man came, like Ma did sometimes. Her lips trembled with disappointment.
"The flat will be much better than here, love." Ma said quickly. "It´s got three good sized bedrooms and a lovely big kitchen. It´s even got a proper bathroom, with a lavatory in it."
An inside lavatory? Ruby brightened. That would be nice. Much better than having to go to the lavatory in the yard, that was so cold that in winter Pa kept a paraffin lamp burning near the pipe, day and night, to make sure that it didn´t freeze solid. And even that was better than some of the kids in school, who shared a lavatory with a couple of other families and had to walk down the street if they wanted to go. They had to use a potty if they were caught short in the night.
"It'll take a lot of sorting out, as it hasn't been lived in for years. But we can do that, can´t we love? And there´s all Grandpa's furniture to come, as well, so we´ll always have something to remind us of him and Grandma."
Ruby thought hard.
"Please, Ma. Can I have Grandma's old sewing box? Have it for myself, I mean?"
"You always did love that old thing, didn´t you?" Ma smiled. "Good job you said, or I'd have thrown it out. Yes, of course you can have it. And if you promise to learn how to use it, you can have Grandma's sewing machine, as well."
Ruby's heart swelled with pleasure. And her cup runneth over as Ma continued;
"If you think you could finish it, you can have a go at that tapestry Grandma was working. She said you were very handy with a needle, and it´s a shame to chuck it away when she spent so long on it. Anyway, I´ll tell you what. We´re all going to have a little treat before we move. Dad's got a lot of paperwork to sort out, so you and me and the little ones are going over to Patrington for a few weeks. What do you think about that?"
Ruby brightened immediately. Patrington was the annual retreat for the Beardsley brood. Without fail, on the first of August, (unless the first was a Sunday, in which case the announcement would be made on the following Monday) Pa would declare that he couldn´t stand all these kids about the place, and they were all going - with Ma - to see the Dodgson´s for a month. And so cases would be packed, and Mum and all the kids would take the rattling old local train (a rare treat in itself) for Hull, and then a blue East Riding bus to Patrington. Unlike the buses in Leeds, which stopped - or at least, was supposed to stop, but often didn´t - only at regulation bus stops, the Hull bus always stopped right outside the Dodgson´s front gate for them, and the whole family spilled out gleefully. The Dodgson´s had a huge, shambling old house, with a huge, shambling garden. They kept chickens, and the Beardsley kids were allowed to collect the eggs and clean the perches. When they got tired of playing cowboys and Indians, and pirates and sailors, in the garden, they could hop on the bus and take the short ride from the village to the coast at either Withernsea or Hornsea. Ruby preferred Hornsea, which was slightly bigger. But best of all, next door was Althea House, a square, time-worn Georgian house which sat in a neglected orchard. All the Beardsley kids scrumped plums and apples and gooseberries from Althea House's orchard, but the real attraction was the house itself. Big as it was, it had only one occupant, an old lady who never seemed to venture outside the house. The boys would creep up and peer through the downstairs windows; if the old lady saw them, she banged on the window with her walking stick, shouting at them to go away.
Ruby and Coral made up stories about the old woman, whom they insisted was mad. She had been left at the altar, years ago. Or her fiancé had been killed in some war or other, and she had lost her marbles as a result. Or she had murdered her husband, and on being released from prison refused to leave her house. Mrs. Dodgson laughed at their tales, and said Mrs. Ogilvie had a perfectly good husband, who was at work during the day so they didn´t see him. And she wasn't that old, either. But they didn´t believe her.
"When I grow up and marry somebody rich, I´m going to buy Althea House and live there." Coral declared importantly.
"No you're not. I´m going to have it." Ruby said instantly.
After the open countryside at Patrington, the flat above the shop was dusty, musty and full of shadows. The Beardsley kids explored it with whoops of joy, using the huge old kitchen table top as a slide down the back stairs, and running their fingers through the dust to make patterns.
Ma stood it as long as she could, then told Ruby to take the little ones into the back yard and keep an eye on them while she cleaned. The Pickford´s van Pa had splashed out on arrived a couple of days later, crammed full with Grandpa's furniture, and - as soon as the flat was to May's satisfaction - the Beardsley brood moved in.
And a year later, little Jim arrived.
Ruby greeted his arrival with distant loathing. Yet another boy. And with every sibling, Ma got paler and more tired and less bothered with anything. And anybody. The trips to Ascot had stopped as well, as had all the delicious family outings to Roundhay Park and Kirkstall Abbey. Once a year they still had their birthday treat; the annual trip into Leeds for lunch, for the birthday child and their chosen sibling, but that was very nearly it. Even the annual holiday to Patrington was no longer a certainty, and gradually shrank from a month to two weeks and then a single week. The shop, it seemed, took precedence over everything. And Pa - Pa who no longer made books for a living - was a respectable shopkeeper who worked all hours and on Sunday, the one day that was sacred even to a thriving greengrocer, slumped in the corner reading the "Pink ´Un" sporting paper and listening to the racing on his crystal set.
Ruby noticed it all, and privately thought the changes were definitely not for the best, but was grown up enough to simply shrug. Babies and shops were out of her ken. Grandma's tapestry was long since finished, and Ma had been so impressed with her work, she had had it framed. It now took pride of place on the wall in the Front Room. Even better, Ruby had quickly learned the knack of Grandma's old treadle sewing machine, and she had become so expert that Ma had stopped buying clothes for the Beardsley children, and instead went to Leeds market and bargained for lengths of cloth, which Ruby's clever fingers transformed into dresses and shirts and even trousers for the boys. She never needed a pattern; it just seemed to her to be second nature to be able to sew. Coral, of course, always had the prettiest dresses, with neat little jackets to match, scraped up out of the unlikeliest remnants of material.
Ruby had thought that Ma had stopped producing brothers and sisters, and was glad of it. She and Coral discussed the matter, and decided that Ma was too old to have any more children. They were both pleased about it.
It came as a shock, then, when Rose popped into the world. In spite of her doubts, Ruby fell in love with her little sister the moment she laid eyes on her. She was the prettiest, the sweetest, the quietest baby in the world. She smiled at everything and everyone, particularly Ruby, her dark blue Beardsley eyes lighting up with pleasure when her eldest sister took her in her arms.
Bonny, aren't you? Ooh, you're going to set some hearts fluttering when you grow up, little sister!
Coral was far less impressed. And said so. What, she demanded, did Ruby want to bother with the sniveling kid for? It would be years before she would be interesting, years before she could even walk or talk. Years before she would be anything but a hungry bundle in a smelly nappy.
Ruby explained that someone had to look after little Rose. Just look at Ma, for heaven´s sake. She was so pale you could see through her, and she had no go left in her, none at all. If that was what having babies did to you, Ruby opinioned, she wouldn't bother, thank you very much. Coral shrugged; having your own babies would probably be different, but Rose was just another sister.
Anyway, Coral said, it was alright for Ruby, she would be out of here before very long, but she would be stuck in the shop for years and years.
"And it´s not as if Pa even gives us anything for helping out in the shop. A flipping bruised apple or a soft pear, if we're lucky."
"Up to you, isn´t it?" Ruby said. "Fair enough, you have to stick it for a good while yet, but then you can get out. Use the time to decide what you want to do, and then go for it. And stop picking those arms or you'll have scabs for ever."
Coral pulled a face.
"They itch." She whined.
"No they don´t." Ruby said tartly. "I know you´ve got Ma thinking it´s impetigo, and fussing round you in case the neighbours think you're mucky, but I know you, Coral Beardsley. You just pick at them, don´t you? There´s nothing wrong with your skin, at all. Why do you do it?"
"Dunno." Coral flushed darkly, pulling the sleeves of her cardigan down across her fingertips.
"Well stop it. If you make them bleed again, Ma´s going to slather your arms with gentian violets again, and you'll be purple for weeks."
"She´s got to catch me first. Any road, leave off calling me Coral. Sodding stupid name. Don´t know why Ma couldn´t have called me something pretty, like the rest of you got. Me name's going to be Cora, in future."
Coral-that-was pulled a face and slouched off, leaving Ruby to croon over baby Rose.
Wonder what's go into our Coral's head all at once? She´s just jealous of the attention the little ´un´s getting, that's what it is. Just pray God she's the last.
She sighed, wondering what had gone wrong with Ma and Pa. Since they moved into the shop, Pa had changed beyond all recognition. Ruby remembered when she had been a little girl, and they had lived in the tiny terrace house on Ventnor Street. Pa had been happy as a Bookie's Runner, although - now she understand that a Bookmaker didn´t actually make books at all - she couldn´t quite work out why. Money had been tight at times, so tight that there had been many occasions when they had all hidden behind the furniture when the Tally Man came knocking for his money; with Pa pulling funny faces at her even as he told her to be quiet, and him laughing fit to burst when the Tally Man had stumped off, unpaid yet again. And there had been other, better, times when Pa was flush and he came home with chocolates for Ma and toys for her. Good times, those had been.
Since they moved into the shop, all that had gone. Granddad had let things get a bit run down. The shop still made money, but not that much. Pa had changed all that. At first, it had been exciting. All the kids had been called on to clean and move things, not just in the flat, but in the shop as well. Pa had found enough money from somewhere to install a huge showcase to keep the fish and game cool and in good condition, and then he went to the wholesalers, and insisted that the rubbish they had palmed off on Grandpa was to be a thing of the past. Customers came out of curiosity at first and then stayed when they realised that Pa only sold first class merchandise, and moreover was always ready with a bit of banter to make them laugh.
But that was the only place he did laugh. Once out of the shop, he either sat with pages and pages of accounts, working out his orders for the coming week, or stuck his head in the sporting paper, working out his bets. The better the shop did, the less money seemed to be available for frivolous purposes.
Grandma's sewing machine began to work overtime, and the more proficient Ruby became, the less money did Pa lay out for new clothes for the kids. Once she learned to knit as well, not even winter jumpers and cardigans were bought ready made. The family ate out of the shop, until all of them longed for a bit of butcher's meat instead of endless fish and rabbit; fish and rabbit, at that, that was past its best and wouldn't sell to paying customers. Even the eggs they ate were stale, and never a piece of fruit or vegetable found its way upstairs that wasn't past its best.
But obviously, Pa still had one pleasure left.
As Ruby approached her fourteenth birthday, all the talk was of war. It was inevitable, everybody said, and shook their heads. No one could remember what a real war in Europe was like, but that did nothing to quench the rumours. It was going to be bad, they said. Really bad. Ruby listened, but shrugged. War was nothing to her. War was for other people. Not the Beardsley family. Not them.
She was shocked beyond measure when Pa disappeared one day, and Ma said he had gone to volunteer. Looking at Ruby's blank face, Ma burst into tears and Ruby rushed to comfort her.
"He´s had to go into Leeds, for a medical." She wailed. "If he goes into the army and war starts properly, we might never see him again. The silly sod says it´s his duty and he might as well go now before he gets called up. Oh, Ruby, what's going to happen to us? What about the shop?"
Ruby put her arms around her mother to comfort her, and recoiled in disbelief. Ma´s waist was thick, thicker than she had realised under her voluminous winter clothes. Ruby stared at her, torn between exasperation and pity. Ma was pregnant, again. With little Rose barely a toddler, and Jim only just at school. She had long since found out not only where babies came from, but also what caused them, and a wave of fury engulfed her. Why couldn´t Pa learn to keep it in his pants? Or if he couldn´t manage that, why couldn´t he use something? She was a bit hazy on what the "something" was, but she had heard the older boys sniggering about buying something from the barbers "for the week-end" and she had shrewdly guessed what the "something" was for. Not that she believed for a second that they would have any use for whatever it was, but it seemed to amuse the poor little souls.
As it happened, Ma had no need to worry. Pa came back from his medical in a vile mood.
"They said I´ve got flat feet!" He said indignantly. "And a weak chest. Me! Who never had so much as a cold in my life!" He sat down in his chair by the fire and lit a Capstan Full Strength cigarette, coughing violently as the hot smoke hit his lungs. "And they said I was too old! Said I would be on reserve, but they didn´t think the war would go on long enough for me ever to be called up. But thank you so much for coming anyway!"
Ruby and Ma exchanged heartfelt looks.
"Never mind, love." Ma fussed round him, passing him a mug of tea, "I´ve got a nice bit of liver and bacon for tea. Thought we all deserved a treat."
"I hope that bloody Albert Ledsford at the butchers didn´t rip you off. I´ve seen him many a time with his thumb on the scales."
Some things, Ruby thought, didn´t change.
She thought it again when Pearl was born on the day war was actually declared. This baby couldn´t wait to get into the world, and Ma had no time to get to hospital. Pearl popped out in Ma´s bed, and Ruby told Cora off to cart the mucky sheets away and get them washed, while she looked after mother and baby. Cora made throwing up noises but did as she was told, making "another bloody baby" noises under her breath.
Ruby washed Ma and the new baby carefully, and had everything under control before Dr. Hammond arrived. All he had to do was check that all was well. He was loud in his admiration.
"Couldn´t have done any better myself, Ruby. Don´t suppose you fancy going in for nursing, do you? I could put a good word in for you at the Infirmary."
Ruby was pleased, but shook her head firmly.
"No thank you." She said politely. "I know what I want to do."
Dr. Hammond had left by the time Pa got home. He had been at the wholesalers, ordering stock for the next week. By the smell of him, he had also called off at the pub on his way home. Ruby curled her lip.
You should have been here, Pa! Why weren't you with Mum? Anybody would think it had nothing to do with you!
She told him so, and he threatened to give her the back of his hand. Ruby stood and looked at him until his Dutch courage evaporated and he pushed her aside, muttering that he had better go see May.
Ma was too exhausted to do little more than feed the new baby. Ruby took charge briskly, detailing jobs to each Beardsley child. Rose and Jim were too little to be of any use, but Eddie, Sam and Cora - much against their wills - were each given tasks, ranging from cleaning the flat to helping in the shop. Ruby herself did the cooking; not terribly well, but at least they were all fed.
She marveled over baby Pearl. She was so much like Rose had been when she was first born. Rose had been born with a thick crop of auburn curls, so had Pearl. Both had big, sleepy violet-blue eyes. Both were good, placid babies, rarely crying except when they wanted feeding. Pearl was even exactly the same weight as Rose had been. She mentioned this to Ma, who nodded agreement.
"I know, they could be twins, couldn´t they? Might change when this one grows up, I suppose. But if she turns out as bonny as Rose, she'll do alright."
Rose was, indeed, a beautiful child. Ruby was as proud of her as a mother. Her curls had never, in spite of what all the neighbours had predicted, rubbed off, but had simply darkened to a glorious reddish-auburn. Her skin was pink and white, her nature truly sweet. Even Cora begrudgingly said she supposed that she was a nice little brat.
Pearl was a few months old when the war really began to get underway. And the war was going on nicely, thank you, when Ruby dropped her own bombshell.
Since his disappointment at being refused to allow to fight, Pa had been cock-a-hoop. All the neighbours were aware that Tom Beardsley had been the very first in the area to volunteer, and it was no fault of his own that he had been turned down. They were still proud of him. And stayed proud as boys and men were conscripted from every family, leaving mothers and wives and sisters wondering if they would ever see their men folk again.
Everybody put a brave face on it. As the first summer of the war advanced, the talk was that it would all be over by Christmas, and the men would be home again soon after. But, as rumours of possible shortages began to spread, everybody began to hoard food. Everything that was in a can or a bottle sold like hot cakes; Pa - shrewd as ever - bought up a job lot of Kilner jars and had Ma working away in the kitchen at all hours, bottling fruit and vegetables. Not incidentally, the things she bottled were never the decent stuff Pa could sell in the shop, but rather the limp green beans and the bruised fruit. When even the second-class produce ran out, Pa rescued the cauliflowers and onions and marrows that would normally have been thrown out and got Ma to turn out jars and jars of Piccalilli and pickled onions. Poor Ma developed a constant running nose from the onion fumes.
By October, over eight hundred displaced Belgian refugees had arrived in Leeds. Suddenly, talk of the war being over by Christmas died away, and at the same time Pa found he had more customers than he could supply. The shilling dinners became two shilling dinners, and still sold out in hours. Fish went in short supply, and Pa resorted to keeping what he called "the good stuff" for carriage trade customers, who were - if not happy, at least willing - to pay over the odds for cod and salmon. Everybody else had to take herrings and mackerel, and be glad they could get it.
Ruby became used to furtive knocks at the back door at all hours of the day and night. Pa always answered the door himself, except on one occasion when he was in the shop and Ruby opened the door to be faced by a strange man, wearing a voluminous Mackintosh. Before she had time to speak, the man untied his belt and swung his coat open wide, revealing two pairs of hares hanging on each side. He winked broadly at her before swinging the little furry corpses into her hands.
"Give them to your Pa, love, and tell him Joe will settle up next time he sees him. Alright?"
Ruby took the hares gingerly, and from then on worried that Pa would get done for black-marketeering.
Little Pearl simply slept through it all. Even when the cobbled streets echoed to the sounds of marching boots, and all the other Beardsley siblings leaned out of the windows to wave paper Union Jacks and cheer on the departing conscripts, still she slept. And as the months slipped by, her resemblance to Rose grew.
"Bless her," the women customers commented as she slumbered in her pram; inside the shop on bad days, outside when the sun shone. "She´s the spitting image of Rose at her age, isn´t she? They could have been twins."
Only Cora demurred. She had taken agin´ little Pearl, and nothing would reconcile her. She hated being bullied into changing her nappies, and often left the little mite until she was forced to cry with the pain of nappy rash. Ruby reproached her, but Cora was adamant.
"She´s not as nice as everybody thinks she is." She said mulishly. "There´s something nasty about that one, you'll see."
"She´s nothing but a baby!" Ruby reproved, but Cora wouldn't budge.
"It´s not right, her looking so much like Rose. Something funny there. You'll see."
Ruby shook her head, wondering what maggot had got into Cora's head. It occurred to her to wonder if Cora really was jealous of the new baby, who was taking up so much of Ruby's time, but she shrugged the thought aside. Cora would never be so silly.
By the summer of 1915, Ruby had made her mind up. She had had enough of the shop, enough of trying to pacify customers who had shopped there for years, but now found there was nothing worth having left for them. Enough of Pa gloating over his profits, but still expecting her to make clothes for the family; clothes that were now made of black-market cloth, delivered to the back door by yet more furtive men.
She told Ma, who agreed with her, and then she spoke to Pa one Sunday evening.
"Pa, I´ve got something to tell you."
Pa looked at her over the top of the "Pink ´Un." There was little racing now, but he still kept up with what there was.
"Aye? Not in trouble, are you?"
Ruby blushed, but stood her ground.
"I´ve got a job, Pa. At Barnbow."
Pa lowered his paper slowly. Folded it precisely, and then stared at his eldest daughter incredulously.
"Barnbow? The munitions factory? You can´t. You´re not old enough."
"I can, Pa. They said if one of my parents agreed, it would be alright. And Ma said I could."
Pa´s jaw dropped. He stared at Ma as if she had grown two heads, and Ruby spoke quickly.
"The pay's smashing, Pa. I start at three quid a week, and with overtime, and bonuses and all that, it could be even more."
"Three quid? A week?"
"Hell's teeth, that’s more than a labouring man earns. You´re sure about this, our Ruby?"
She tugged her papers out of her cardigan pocket and handed them to him. She could see his opposition lifting, almost like a physical cloak had been parted.
"Well, you'll have to pay for your keep, you know."
"A quid." Ruby spoke firmly. "I´ll give you a quid. The rest is mine. I´ll be earning it."
Ruby didn´t even bother to quibble.
Thought you would say that, Pa. That's why I started at a quid in the first place.
"Alright." She nodded. "I start a week on Monday."
She never said anything to Pa, still less to Ma, but she soon found out why the work at Barnbow paid so well. Slowly but surely, her lovely fair skin began to turn yellow. Pa never noticed, but Ma was anxious. Although Ma soon had something of her own to be anxious about.
She was pregnant yet again.
Cherry was born during a Zeppelin raid in the winter of 1916. Exhausted from her long shift at Barnbow, Ruby pitched in with the birth all the same, and managed a smile as she handed yet another Beardsley girl baby to Ma.
"Enough, Ma." She said gently. "Any more will kill you."
Ma smiled weakly and shrugged. She had no milk for the new baby, and this time, the post-natal bleeding refused to stop on its own. Ruby bullied Pa into sending for Dr. Hammond, and within an hour of his visit Ma was in the Infirmary in Leeds centre. Ruby took a grudged week off work to look after her new sister, and when Ma finally came home, it was with the news - news that she shared with Ruby, but none of the others; Ruby doubted that she even told Pa - that there would be no more Beardsley babies. Little Cherry had seen to that, the doctors had said. Even as she rocked the constantly crying Cherry, Ruby rejoiced for her mother.
Equally did she rejoice that she now had her own room. Hardly a bedroom, her new space was actually a storeroom, downstairs behind the shop, but it was the first time in her whole life that she had had some privacy. Eddie had roused Pa to almost apoplexic fury by lying about his age and joining the army as soon as he was fifteen. Even so, the flat was still full. Cherry's cot was in Ma and Pa´s bedroom. Jim and Sam shared a bedroom, and the four girls shared the largest bedroom between them. As the war progressed, so activity at Barnbow became more frantic, and Ruby was asked to work a three-shift pattern; one week on days, the following week on nights, and then afternoons. Although often over-time meant that she was reduced to crawling into bed and then straight out to wait for the special Barnbow bus as soon as she woke up. Ma quietly pointed out to Pa that Ruby was more than paying her way, and that anyway it wasn't fair on the other girls to have her waking them up at all hours. Pa agreed grudgingly, and cleared out the storeroom for Ruby's bed. There was room for the bed, and a small chest of drawers, and that was that. To Ruby, it was heaven.
Cora hated her working at Barnbow. She sulked, and cornered Ruby whenever she had an hour at home.
"You´re as yellow as a Chinaman." She pointed out spitefully. Ruby scrubbed her face with her fingers and grimaced.
"I know. It´s the cordite - the stuff we put in the shells - it´s bad for you. I´ll have to start drinking more milk." She curled her lips. "I hate the stuff, but they reckon it´s the only cure."
"Milk? Where you going to get that from, then? We only get a pint a day for the lot of us."
"Barnbow´s got it´s own farm, clever clogs. With its own cows and everything. We get all the milk we want, whether we like it or not. Better than being yellow, anyhow."
"Don´t tell Pa." Cora said gleefully. "He´ll have you trying to smuggle a milk churn out!"
Both girls collapsed in giggles.
In spite of the terrible working conditions, Ruby enjoyed working at the sprawling munitions factory. By 1916, nearly all the workers were young, working-class women, and an intense camaraderie developed between them. Always there, but never spoken of, was the threat that each working day might be their last. Each day bought the risk that Barnbow would be the target for the many German bombs dropped by Zeppelins on Leeds. And at the end of each day, there was an almost audible feeling of optimism; another day survived. Another day nearer to the end of the war. Another day they were all still alive!
And because of that, all of the girls were determined to enjoy each day as if it might well be their last. Whenever Ruby was on an afternoon or morning shift, and the pubs were still open at the end of the working shift, she joined a gang of young women who gleefully pulled on their clothes and headed for the nearest pub, laughing and joshing each over like so many sailors on shore leave.
"By hell, I do believe I´ve forgotten my knickers!" Was a common joke, always raised by one girl or another as they reached the pub. Outsiders could never see the humour in it, but to the "Barnbow Lasses", who were forced to work stripped to their underwear and wearing nothing else but baggy smocks with no buttons, and caps hiding their hair, it was hilarious. Neither was hairgrips, combs, cigarettes or matches allowed anywhere near the explosives they handled daily. As a result, each and every one of the Lasses smoked non-stop as soon as they left the Barnbow grounds, and Ruby quickly followed their lead. The cigarette smoke tasted sweet after the acrid tang of cordite, and it was a sociable thing to be able to pass round a packet of cigarettes after a long shift in the factory.
All the Lasses were aware that they were the object of intense desire to the men who were in the pubs. Torn between sneering at these independent women, who appeared to have more money than they did, and being desperate to see if they could be picked up, the men always came off worse in the inevitable banter and they invariably resorted to calling the Lasses "Tarts" and "Trollops." All the comments were met with the same rousing chorus of "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never harm me. Fuck off," and "Get you! Does your mother know you're out, little boy?"
Ruby thought she might well stay at Barnbow until the end of the war. However long that might be. Secretly, virtually all the Lasses wanted the war to go on for as long as possible. Their men had already been taken away, nothing could change that. But for all of them, for the first time in their lives, they were independent. They were making real money. Many of them had become heads of families. None of them had anybody to answer to but themselves. It was glorious. The work was hard, and unpleasant. There was always the chance that they would be killed if that bomb with their name on it did drop, but in a way that added to the fun. Live life today. Tomorrow… well, tomorrow may never come.
So make the most of it.
That day, nearing Christmas, Ruby had the luxury of a night in her own bed. Her best mate, Pat, had asked if they could swap shifts. She had heard that Marshall and Snellgrove´s in Leeds had a rare shipment of toys coming in, and she wanted to get some presents for the kids for Christmas. If she took Ruby's twelve-hour night shift, it would free up the whole of the next day for her. Would Ruby mind? Ruby jumped at the chance.
She caught the Barnbow Special as usual late next afternoon. She would be early for her shift, but could always grab a cup of tea in the canteen. Anyway, the next bus would have left barely five minutes for her to get changed in. As always, the bus was filled with young women; yawning and stretching - for them, it was, after all, morning - and lighting the last cigarettes of the day before the shift ended. As the bus approached Barnbow, it was stopped at the gate. The women craned their necks in excitement.
"Do you think they´ve copped for a bomb last night?" One asked.
"God, I hope not." Ruby bit her lip. "I was supposed to be on the night shift, but I swapped."
One of the inspectors stood by the bus doors, clipboard in hand. As each woman climbed off, he checked their name against it.
"Ruby Beardsley, did you say?"
"Shouldn't you have been on duty last night in Room 42? I´ve got you down on the list here for a twelve-hour shift."
"I swapped with my friend, Pat Simmonds. She … she wanted to go shopping for her kids' Christmas presents." Ruby's voice tailed off at the expression on the Inspector's face. "What's happened?" She whispered.
"Come with me, lass."
Ruby trailed after the Inspector.
Have I done something wrong? Has something happened to Pat? Oh, God! If there is, it´s my fault for swapping shifts. Please God, no. Please.
She could feel the rest of the Lasses watching her retreating back, and almost felt the whispers that followed her.
Instead of going into the Changing Rooms, the Inspector led her to a private office and sat her in front of a huge desk. "Back in a tick, love."
He returned five minutes later with a man wearing a suit and pince-nez. By now thoroughly terrified, Ruby watched as he leafed through a sheaf of papers on the desk.
"Ruby, isn´t it?" She nodded. "Well, Ruby. I have to tell you that you may well be the luckiest girl alive. What I am about to tell you is highly confidential; you are not to breathe a word of it to anybody. If you do, you will be dismissed immediately. Do you understand?"
She couldn´t speak. Her throat felt like sandpaper. Instead, she nodded.
"You should have been on the nightshift, in Room 42 last night?" Nod. "Starting at eight? You changed shifts with another girl?" Nod. "Mrs. Patricia Simmonds?" Nod.
The Manager paused and exchanged glances with the Inspector.
"I´m sorry to tell you, Ruby, that there was an … an accident in Room 42 last night. We´re not sure what happened yet, but it seems likely that one of the machines malfunctioned. I mean, that one of the machines failed to work properly. You understand what I mean?"
In her mind's eye, Ruby saw the huge expanse of Room 42. Up to one hundred and fifty women worked there at once, lined up in front of long trestle tables. Shells were bought in already packed with explosives, the task of the girls in Room 42 was to insert the fuses and screw down the caps. The fuses were inserted by hand, screwed down and then the shell was placed in a machine that screwed the fuses down tightly. In addition to the noise of the screwing machines, the room was always filled with the laughter of the girls and the sound of their banter. Dangerous though the shells were, Room 42 was a good place to work, and all the girls knew each other well.
"Was… was Pat hurt, sir?" She croaked. Again, that glance between the Manager and the Inspector.
"Ah, we think so."
You think so? Ruby stared from one man to the other in bewilderment. What did they mean, they thought so? Hadn't all of the girls been rescued yet? She half rose from her chair in her anxiety, but the Inspector pushed her down with a firm grip on her shoulders.
"Ruby, I am sorry to have to tell you this, but under the circumstances I feel that I must." The Manager pulled a piece of paper from the desk in front of him, and read from it, his voice toneless.
"This is the preliminary report on the - ah - accident.
"At approximately 10:30pm yesterday, 5th December 1916, an explosion took place in Room 42. First indications are that a piece of machinery malfunctioned and caused a small explosion. Following this, the shells in the immediate area detonated causing a violent explosion which encompassed much of the room." He paused to clear his throat and Ruby felt the room swimming around her. She felt sick; an explosion. The one thing above all else, even worse than the threat of a German bomb, that all the girls dreaded. She heard the detonation; felt the tug of air being sucked into the vortex; felt the first flickers of flame. Then her head was pushed between her knees and anxious voices were asking if she was alright. Once she could sit upright, she said:
"Pat? What's happened to Pat?"
"I´m sorry, Ruby. We are assuming that Mrs. Simmonds died in the explosion. We have lost thirty-five women in this terrible accident, and many more have been injured. Mrs. Simmonds is not amongst those who were injured."
For a moment, Ruby had a surge of hope. If Pat hadn't been injured, then surely, surely, she was alive? And well? She stared hopefully at the man behind the desk, who shook his head gently.
"Ruby, you worked in Room 42. You know what it was like. We know that Mrs. Simmonds was not amongst the badly injured, nor those who survived with only minor injuries, but many of those unfortunates who died were very badly burned. I am afraid we have simply not been able to identify your friend yet. We think we may have found her body." He paused and fumbled in his desk drawer. "Unless we have to, we do not wish to ask any of her family to identify the … the remains. She was your friend, do you recognize this?"
He pushed a ring across to Ruby. Even badly scorched and tarnished, she recognized Pat's pride and joy; her engagement ring. Not the normal diamond, but an emerald flanked by two pearls. One of the pearls was missing.
Ruby nodded. Quite loudly - which was odd, as the Manager was actually very softly spoken - she heard a voice saying, "The Company will, of course, ensure that Mrs. Simmonds´ children are very well cared for. The compensation will be more than adequate."
She swallowed and nodded again before falling to the floor in a dead faint.