Sunday 31st October, 1915
I don’t need a sweetheart.
Milly repeated the five words over and over to herself as the train puffed its way back to King’s Cross.
I don’t need a sweetheart.
I don’t need a sweetheart.
I don’t need a sweetheart.
Wasn’t it interesting, she reflected, how if she put the emphasis on different words, the meaning changed? But it was always true.
She, eighteen- year- old Milly Woods, from Bow, East London, absolutely, definitely – and whatever other fancy words her friends Nora and Liza might care to throw at the matter – didn’t need a sweetheart.
Not now. Not ever.
Women were fine on their own, weren’t they? They were proving that by doing all the jobs their menfolk used to do, before the men went off to war. Women were doing things that no one had dreamed possible even a year ago – just look at her own family! There was nothing women couldn’t do and at some point – hopefully sooner rather than later – they were darned well going to get the vote as they deserved.
So, no, Milly didn’t need a man. And she didn’t want a man, for that matter. After what Pa had done to Ma, after what Maggie’s husband had done to her – well, you couldn’t trust any of them, could you? It was just better – easier – to stay away from the lot of them.
But last night had threatened to change all that. Liza, her best friend from the Home Depot, had invited Milly and their other best friend, Nora, up to her home in Hertfordshire for the annual Woodhampstead Fundraising Ball – and a very jolly occasion it had been too. James, another friend from the Home Depot, had been there too and – oh! – the way he had looked at Liza as he’d twirled her around the dance floor. Everyone at work knew that Liza and James had been getting closer and closer over the past few months, but last night it had been obvious the two were mad for each other; Liza was a sensible, no- nonsense girl and not given to wild displays of emotion, but anyone could see that she was positively glowing. And then Liza’s brother, Ned, had asked Nora to dance – and even though Nora, for all her mansions and grand relatives and fancy ways, was a liability on the dance floor, Ned hadn’t been able to tear his gaze away from her.
Part of Milly longed to be looked at like that. To be held and twirled and admired. To be handled as though she was a piece of that delicate china that was sold up the Roman, and that Ma always scoffed at because it wouldn’t last five minutes at home.
To be desired.
To be loved.
There. She’d admitted it – if only to herself.
But she couldn’t afford to think like that – even if men said they loved you and made you pretty promises, it didn’t last. Men hurt you. They betrayed you. They let you down. She was much better off on her own.
Thoughts like this got Milly all the way to King’s Cross, onto the Tube and accompanied her on her short walk home.
‘Clear today,’ came a voice, as Milly reached the front gate.
It was Ruth, their next- door neighbour, appearing in her doorway. Ruth was always appearing in her doorway – the more so since her husband had gone to France. Today she was nodding sagely up at the blue autumnal skies, and Milly knew exactly what she meant. Without cloud cover, there was unlikely to be a Zeppelin attack that night and thank goodness for that. Even though everyone was putting on a brave face, they’d all been on tenterhooks since the last silent, deadly attack barely two weeks ago and everyone was in desperate need of a good night’s sleep.
‘Thank goodness for that,’ said Milly fervently, opening the gate and gently pushing away their tail-less mouser, Cat, with her foot. She was exhausted after the late night and not in the mood for small talk.
Milly walked up the black- and- red flagstone path to the front door, put her key in the lock and swung open the front door.
The house was so tiny.
At least, it was compared to Liza’s. Oh, Liza wasn’t rich – not by any means; her family were shopkeepers and ran Woodhampstead’s general provision store. And Liza’s house was hardly palatial – it was nothing compared to Nora’s huge white house next to the Regent’s Park – and it didn’t even have running water, for goodness’ sake! But it was very spacious – Liza actually had her own bedroom – and it all smelt deliciously of ham and tea and butter from the adjoining shop, and her clean, wholesome village was so different to Milly’s crowded, dirty London neighbourhood with its starving animals and filthy tenements. Her road, at least, was clean and respectable, but go a couple of hundred yards in any direction and it was a very different story. Milly knew they were all one small step away from penury and the work-house . . .
Milly sighed as she stepped into the narrow passage. It was no different to the other houses in the street – she had nothing to grumble about – but it was all so cramped. On the left was the parlour door – or, at least, what would be the parlour if the room hadn’t been rented out to Gustav Wildermuth, with strict instructions on when he could use the scullery and the kitchen. Like many Germans, Mr Wildermuth’s bakery and lodgings had been targeted after the recent wave of Zeppelin bombings. Milly knew Liza had been shocked when she’d discovered Milly had a German living in her home – such a thing would apparently never be allowed to happen in her little corner of Hertfordshire – but around here, it wasn’t especially unusual. As Ma said, Mr Wildermuth paid his rent on time and a German man’s shillings went as far as the next man’s. Besides, he had moved to London fifteen years ago when he was twelve – longer than Milly’s brother, Charlie, had been alive – so he wasn’t really German any more.
Milly carried on down the passage and pushed open the door to the kitchen – the heart of the home – with its oilskin- covered table, its ancient sagging sofa and huge blackened range dominating the space. Today, though, the heart of the home was empty. They would probably all be at Victoria Park, letting Charlie sail his new toy boat on the lake. Milly took off her hat and coat with a sigh, flinging them onto the nearest chair. She should really make the most of having the house to herself – it so rarely happened. She should make herself a cup of tea and lay all her sewing things out on the table without anyone having a grumble at her, and finally get around to changing the buttons on that white blouse that Nora had given her. Instead, she lay back on the sofa with another sigh and shut her eyes . . .
’Milly woke abruptly with a little snort. Goodness, how long had she been asleep?
It was fourteen- year- old Caroline who had greeted her and who was now good- naturedly kicking her outstretched foot. Milly kicked back at her with a grin. ‘Hello, yourself,’ she said, hauling herself up and rubbing her eyes.
And here was Ma, bustling in and waving Milly’s legs off the sofa at the same time as she bent down to kiss her cheek. ‘Good night?’ she asked, moving away without waiting for an answer and, in a couple of deft movements, lighting the oil lamps against the gathering gloom and swinging the kettle onto the range.
‘Did they have horses?’ demanded Caroline. ‘And dogs? They must have had dogs.’
‘She’s probably too grand to speak to us now,’ said sixteen- year- old Alice with characteristic grumpiness as she swept past Milly.
‘Oh, hush, Alice.’ Milly’s older sister, Maggie, was jiggling her grizzly toddler and gave Milly a warm smile. ‘Did you dance with anyone nice?’
Milly’s twelve- year- old brother, Charlie, totally ignored her. ‘I’m hungry,’ he announced to no one in particular.
It was only then that Milly saw the bulging bags. Ma had brought home fish and chips! Such a rare treat. Only now did Milly register the salty tang that had followed her family through the kitchen door. Throwing a cushion to one side, she scrambled to her feet and hurried to set the table. There were even pickled eggs!
Ten minutes later, tucking into their hoard, washing it down with hot sweet tea and listening to the animated chatter, Milly looked around at her family with affection. They may not be the richest. They may not even be vaguely well- to- do. But they were hers.
When Pa had died and left them with nothing – well, nothing but memories that were more bitter than sweet, and a whole host of empty bottles – there had been many who’d whispered that it was only a matter of time before his family was scattered between workhouses. But look at them now! Milly had left her hated live- in position as a maid- of- all- work in Hackney, and now had a coveted job at the Army Post Office’s Home Depot on the Regent’s Park. That alone had shut the naysayers up: plain old Milly Woods, the slightly wayward daughter of John Woods, landing herself such a plum posting. And it hadn’t stopped there. Alice had landed herself an equally well- paid job at one of the new munitions factories further east, and then Ma – Ma! – had amazed everyone by taking a job there as well. Pa had never let Ma take any sort of job – and that might have been all right had he not drunk away much of the money he’d earned as a docker – but he’d barely been cold in his grave before Ma had completed her first shift. You had to seize these opportunities when you could, she said. You had to think on your feet and stay one step ahead of poverty. Two Canaries in the family was nothing to be sniffed at, and, if both were in danger of getting the tell- tale yellow tinge to their skin, it was worth it for money they brought home. Even Maggie – who’d never much liked reading and writing – was earning a pound a week at the toy factory set up at the start of the war by the East London Federation of the Suffragettes, and which even provided a nursery to care for her toddler son, Arthur. Poor Maggie – her husband had upped and offed just after Pa died and she still lived in the rooms she’d shared with him, her reputation in tatters. So, the Woodses were hardly wealthy, but neither were they living hand to mouth and there was enough left over for treats like tonight’s fish and chips.
Ma clapped her hands together, cutting across Milly’s thoughts. ‘Right, everyone,’ she said. ‘It’s Hallowe’en and time to have some fun!’
When Pa had been alive, there had been no marking All Hallows’ Eve – and woe betide anyone who tried. But Ma’s family were Irish and she loved all the old traditions. And so, as soon as the fish supper was cleared away, out came the jack- o’- lantern that Charlie had carved from a huge turnip the day before and the candle was lit with much merriment and high spirits.
And then it was time for the games.
They started with apple bobbing, kneeling on chairs around the table and trying to remove apples floating in a large tub of water with only their teeth. Everyone took a different approach; Milly and her siblings might all have had the trade-mark Woods dark hair but they were so different in temperament it was a wonder they had the same parents. Alice went first and, with a characteristic frown, approached the challenge quietly and methodically, pushing the chosen apple over to the side of the tub to get some purchase and remaining virtually dry throughout. Milly went second; she used much the same technique but was quicker and less considered in her approach, and her unruly curls already escaping from her topknot got decidedly wet. Caroline spent quite a lot of time shrieking and tossing her hair about before cheerfully plunging her whole face into the water without apparent strategy, and emerging empty- mouthed. Charlie brought the war into it – of course he did – by declaring that he was going to ‘defeat the Hun’ and then produced a veritable tidal wave that soaked the floor, before running around the kitchen, arms stretched out, in imitation of an aeroplane. Maggie said that she didn’t want to get water in her eyes – it would sting something dreadful – and anyway, Arthur was grizzling and she couldn’t put him down, and then Ma tutted and took Arthur, and said that you got out of life what you put into it and Maggie should have a go. So, Maggie made a pathetic attempt and emerged saying she’d known she couldn’t do it, and she didn’t know why she’d tried. And then Ma – lovely Ma, the brown paper, glue and string of the family – patted her daughter on the arm and said Maggie was far too young to lose all her confidence in herself just because he had upped and offed and left her, and then Ma leaned over and plucked an apple from the water as effortlessly as if she was picking it up with her hands.
‘One more game,’ said Ma, as she lugged the tub of water through to the scullery. ‘I don’t think we played “blindfolds” last year, but let’s give it a try.’
She returned to the kitchen and put half a dozen saucers onto the table. Milly and her siblings watched, intrigued, as Ma carefully placed an item on each – her wedding ring and rosary beads, a penny, a dried bean, some water and some soil from under the hedge bordering the front garden.
‘What are these for?’ asked Milly, intrigued.
‘A prediction for the year ahead,’ said Ma. ‘We take it in turns to be blindfolded, then we “choose” a saucer and what-ever it contains gives us a clue as to what will happen next year.’
‘What do they all mean?’ asked Caroline, with a little twirl of delight.
‘Well, the ring means you will find true love soon,’ said Ma, tapping the first saucer. ‘Water means you will emigrate; rosary beads that you will take holy orders. The coin means you will be rich; the bean that you will be poor.’
‘What about the mud, Ma?’ asked Charlie.
‘The clay means you might be poorly,’ she said. ‘But it’s all just a bit of fun; no need to take it too seri-ously.
’Ha! The clay clearly meant you would die, thought Milly. But who cared? Nobody believed this sort of thing. Not nowadays, anyway. It was, as Ma had said, a bit of fun from her own childhood to cheer up a cold autumn Sunday evening before they all went back to work or school.
Charlie went first. The scarf tied around his eyes, he was spun around three times and positioned in front of the table. Reaching out, he touched the saucer containing the water.
‘Ooh, you’re going to travel, Charlie- boy,’ said Maggie, ruffling his hair as she untied the blindfold.
‘Hurrah!’ shouted Charlie. ‘Maybe I’ll be able to join the war.’
‘Over my dead body,’ muttered Ma. And then, a little louder, ‘The only place you’re going to travel to any time soon is up to bed to get your beauty sleep.
’Caroline went next and chose the rosary beads. Everyone erupted into laughter. There was no one less likely to become a nun than Caroline; she would far rather roam the streets tending injured animals than go to church.
Maggie chose the coin. ‘Ooh, you’re going to be rich, Maggie,’ said Milly, rubbing her older sister’s arm.
Maggie gave Milly a sardonic glance. ‘Fat chance of that,’ she said, and she suddenly looked close to tears. ‘How, pray, can an abandoned wife with a baby son get rich? I can’t get married again whilst I’m still bleeding married. I’m stuck! Why, only yesterday, Ruth next door reminded me that until we know where Leo is, I’m doomed to be an old maid – even though I’m still married—’‘My turn,’ interrupted Alice impatiently, pushing the others aside and tying the scarf over her eyes. Caroline and Charlie spun her around – once, twice, three times – and then she reached out, her finger jabbing the clay. She pulled the blind-fold off, her face like thunder.
‘Oh, rotten luck, Alice,’ said Maggie. ‘Anyway, we all know it’s not true. As if Caroline’s going to be a nun!’
‘It’s a horrid game,’ said Alice, stamping her foot. ‘Why is it funny to say I’ll get poorly?’
‘It’s meant to be that you’ll die,’ said Milly. She couldn’t help it. ‘Ma was just being kind.’
Alice gave Milly a look, made a loud huffing sound and stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind her.
‘Milly!’ said Ma, shaking her head in exasperation before leaving the room in pursuit of Alice.
Milly sighed. Alice always overreacted like that and there would be hell to pay in their shared bed that night. She’d have to fight for her share of the eiderdown . . .‘Your turn, Milly,’ said Maggie, holding out the scarf.
Milly smiled at her gratefully. Even though Ma and Alice had gone, Maggie always wanted to see fair play. Milly tied the scarf around her eyes, let her younger siblings spin her around and reached out. The cold, sharp rim of a saucer and inside . . . a ring.
Now Milly knew the game really was nonsense. As long as she had her family, she really didn’t need anything else. Let Liza keep her fancy middle- class trappings; let Nora keep her mansion. She had all she needed.
And she most definitely didn’t need a man!