Mary knew her sister was still angry but it was pleasant sitting on the front door step so she tried to ignore the heavy sighs. The sea breeze ruffled their hair, the tide was on the turn and she watched the waves collide and dissolve. High above, gulls hung motionless their cries lost in the air currents.
‘I love it here,’ Mary said eventually.
‘Don’t see what’s so special about Wales.’
‘It’s peaceful – and it’s a long way from Ashford.’
‘Ashford’s not so bad – most of the time.’ Ellen crossed her arms. ‘Do you ever think back to when we were kids?’
‘Of course I do.’ Mary grimaced, ‘constant rows.’
‘You and Tom were always close. I remember you gabbing away to him all the time. You still do. I haven’t forgotten what he said earlier, you know.’
Mary guiltily remembered complaining to Tom about Ellen. Her brother was only telling Peter what she’d said to him.
‘It’s not as though Tom’s totally innocent, you know that,’ Ellen said, ‘he brought enough grief to everybody in the family with his bloody beliefs and his refusal to fight in the war.’
Mary held out her hands, spread her fingers. ‘What’s that got to do with anything?’
Ellen bit at the skin at the side of her thumbnail. ‘I’ve always been left out – I’ve never had anybody in the family on my side-’
‘Never had anybody on your side? Do you want me to list all the times you’ve shouted and I‘ve come running? Even since we moved here? Every time you had a problem?’
As though she hadn’t spoken, Ellen persisted, ‘Mam was too busy keeping the peace between everybody and Dad didn’t care-’
‘You were Dad’s favourite, for God’s sake.’
‘Only on his terms; only as long as I did what he told me to; have you forgotten that time I had the chance to be in a show in London but he stopped it. He stopped my one chance to make it big.’
‘Not this again.’ Mary rubbed the tips of her fingers over her forehead. ‘Your voice is lovely, Ellen, you’re still young – you’ve got your spot at the Astoria in Bradlow whenever you want it. There’s time for you to achieve anything you want to.’
‘Huh, fat chance – with Ted and his mother?’
‘Ted’s a good husband to you.’
‘Okay, what do you think he’s done this time?’
‘You don’t want to know.’
‘I do, I do.’
‘I’m not daft, Mary – I know you don’t really want me here-’
‘You’re changing the subject.’
‘Well, you don’t.’
‘Right, that’s enough-’
‘But I thought after helping you and Peter –when I needed a break from home – I’d be welcome.’
‘And you are,’ Mary said, irritated. ‘You know you are. But you turn up without a by-your-leave every time like a bear with a sore backside. All I want you to tell me is what’s wrong this time?’
‘It shouldn’t matter why I’m here,’ Ellen retaliated. ‘I did you a big favour telling Peter where you’d moved to; I’d have thought I deserved a bit of support. I’ll have you know I’ve had months of sleepless nights worrying about what might have happened when he turned up at our house, especially since our Patrick was there.’ She dipped her head towards Peter who was trimming the privet hedge that surrounded the front garden. ‘It’s not every day an ex-POW knocks on your front door.’
As though he’d heard her Peter Schormann turned and smiled at them, his gaze lingering on Mary.
Mary heard Ellen’s slight sniff and, glancing at her, saw the pursing of her mouth. Not for the first time that week, she wondered if her sister was jealous of her and Peter; especially the way things seemed to be going wrong between her and Ted.
Ellen looked down at the baby on her knee, fussing with the buttons and pixie hood of his dark green jumper. ‘It was a right bloody shock when I realised who he was, I can tell you.’
‘And I’ll always be grateful you didn’t turn him away.’
‘You wouldn’t think so; moaning about me to Tom.’
‘I’m sorry, love, I am – really.’ Mary insisted. ‘I didn’t mean to complain to Tom; it’s just that I feel weighed down at the moment; things are difficult in work, the hospital is rife with gossip about me and Peter and sooner or later it’ll get back to the Board of Governors.’
‘Well, I’m sorry but it could have caused ructions; Patrick’s a moody bugger at the best of times. Just think how he’d have been if he’d seen him.’ She waved a hand towards Peter.
‘I know.’ Mary made an remorseful face. ‘I think you were very brave; I know what our Patrick can be like.’
‘He’s still very bitter about the Germans; I’m sick of him coming to the house all the time complaining about this, that and the other, just because some of them stayed in Ashford. One of them came to ask him for a job on one of the stalls last week.’
‘Yeah, you can imagine what he said about that. I’m surprised he didn’t clout the poor bloke. The war’s not over for him.’
‘I doubt it ever will be.’ Mary wondered how their brother had reacted when he found out Peter was living with her and Tom. Not that she cared.
Sometimes she couldn’t believe it herself; sleepless, she would reach out and touch Peter just to reassure herself that he was there, that after five years apart they were together again.
‘But it is over, Mary. And I don’t know why you and Tom won’t come home. Whatever happened is all in the past.’
‘After what you’ve just said?’ Mary gave a breathless laugh.
‘It’d be a lot easier for all of us if you just came back.’ The baby squirmed, fractious, in Ellen’s arms, she stood, swaying from side to side, patting him. Glancing across the garden she saw her daughter and scowled. ‘Linda, come away from there, you’ll get filthy.’
The little girl stopped prodding a stick into the square bed of soil in the middle of the lawn and backed away, brushing her hands together and looking warily at her mother.
‘Don’t take it out on her; a bit of dirt won’t do her any harm,’ Mary smiled at Linda before lowering her voice. ‘And you know why I don’t want to go back to Ashford. Even more so now with Peter with us; can you imagine what all the old gossips would say; they’d have a field day.’
‘I don’t think it would be that bad; like I’ve said, quite a few POWs stayed on after the Granville closed.’
‘And you don’t think there are others like our Patrick? And are any of them living with their girlfriends?’ Mary said. She frowned, studying Ellen. The black sweater and A-line skirt revealed how thin Ellen was, and her blond hair, scraped back into a French pleat, emphasised the gauntness of her face and the dark shadows under her eyes. ‘I wish you’d tell me what the problem is, love, it’s obviously upsetting you; you’re thin as a rake.’
Ellen hunched her shoulders again. ‘I’m alright – well, I will be when-’ She looked around, impatient. ‘Where did you say Tom was, anyway? I’m going to have it out with him about what he said behind my back.’
‘He doesn’t like trouble Ellen.’
‘And he thinks that’s what I am?’
‘He said he couldn’t stand your sniping at him so he’s gone next door. He promised Gwyneth he’d dig her vegetable plot over. Why don’t you just leave things for now?’
‘You must be bloody joking.’
Mary allowed a beat to pass, watching the sun dropping behind the cliffs. The shadows of the trees lengthened and the rising wind slapped the surface of the sea into rolling metallic arcs. ‘Anyway, it’s getting cooler and the kids will need their tea soon. We all will, we’ve left it late tonight,’ she said, lifting Linda into the porch and unzipping her windcheater. Helping her to pull off her fair-isle mittens and Wellingtons she gave the little girl a kiss. ‘Take them inside, Ellen. I‘ll see how long Peter will be before he‘s finished. And give the batter a whisk for me. I’m making Spam fritters to go with that mash from last night.’ She dropped her voice. ‘And no falling out – not in front of the children anyway.’
Walking down the gravel path towards Peter she looked over at the cottage next door. Although it was only just dusk the window in Gwyneth Griffith’s parlour suddenly lit up and the oblong pattern spilled across the garden. Tom emerged out of the shadows swinging a spade in his hand and turned onto the lane. Mary waved to him and he waggled the spade in acknowledgement. ‘Tom’s coming now,’ she called over her shoulder. ‘Stick the kettle on, Ellen; he’ll want a brew before he eats.’
The van came from nowhere …