"Audrey, will you get that?” Winny Bains called to her elder daughter. “My hands are all over suet!”
“Patty can go,” Audrey called back.
“I asked you! For goodness’ sake, Audrey, just open the door. Whoever it is will go away again.”
Audrey scowled at her little sister, who was grinning stupidly. She put down her sketch book and stood up, her long, skinny legs unfolding like a pocket ruler, and shuffled into the hall.
She opened the front door. A dark-haired man in a loose-fitting suit stood there, holding a battered case. He looked vaguely familiar.
“I’m sorry,” the man said. He looked up and down the long street. His face showed puzzlement. “I think I’ve come to the wrong house.” Audrey was almost thrown aside by her mother rushing to the door.
The two grown-up stood looking at each other for a second. The man dropped his case.
She fell into his arms and he kissed her, holding her tightly, stroking her hair.
Seven-year-old Patricia ran towards the group along the narrow hallway. She stared at the embracing figures. Then the two sisters looked at one another. Patricia dashed back into the parlour and came back holding a small, framed photo.
“It’s him,” she whispered.
The lovers drew apart and the man, who seemed to be their father, looked wonderingly at Audrey.
“It’s you,” he said, shaking his head. “I left a little girl of three and now look at her… and baby Patricia. My…”
“Patty,” the little redhead said firmly.
“Patty, then. Whatever you like. Oh, it’s good to be home. Here, don’t I get a cuddle from my daughters?” It was odd, being enfolded by the arms of this big, tall man. He smelled quite unlike her mother, and unlike home.
Then Mother took his hand and led him into the front room. The rug was awash with drawings and broken pencils. Two empty cups stood on the table.
“Girls! It’s terrible in here.” She looked suddenly harassed. “Today of all days! Clear it up, quickly!”
“Don’t worry love,” he said, kissing her cheek. “Let my lovely girls draw. I always did. I’m going to put my kettle on in my kitchen and sit with my feet up on my table. It is the same able with the ring on it where you once put the pan down?”
She held up a scolding finger, smiling.
“You will certainly not put the kettle on. No work for you, Charlie Bains, just home from a war, for goodness’ sake. I will make tea, and whatever to eat my husband’s heart desires.”
Most men had been home for leave at some time during that miserable conflict, but Audrey’s father had not seen his family since 1939. Mother had talked and talked about his bravery, and here he was, their hero, in the flesh.
Mum laid the table in the front room. Audrey couldn’t remember using that varnished table to eat at, not ever. It was for a “best” that never came. Apparently it had come today.
Mum was different somehow, too. She had done her hair, and she’d been beetling about like anything, chivvying Audrey and Patty to look nice, pull up their socks, get rid of the school books and the comics.
“Now, you can carve for us, love.” Winny held out the knife as she approached from the sideboard, handle towards him. “The butcher did me a favour when he heard. It’s so good to have our man back to carve.” She smoothed her skirt and sat down.
“You look funny. Mum,” Patty said.
“Whatever do you mean?” Mum said.
“Your back all stiff and straight. Like Miss Wenn at school.”
“Don’t be silly. It’s a special occasion.” Father had bathed. He said it was his best bath ever, which made the girls laugh. Audrey liked him, and she began to gather together in her mind all the small flashes of memory she had of him. Hadn’t he played with them in the backyard making mud pies? It seemed unlikely.
Now, he wore loose, comfortable looking trousers and a sleeveless sweater over a shirt. The shirt sleeves were rolled up and she noticed a hole in one of them. He leaned back in his chair, sighing with what Audrey assumed was contentment. She couldn’t really tell; she didn’t know him.
“Are you alright wearing those old things, Charlie?” mum asked awkwardly. “I kept a nice blazer hanging in a laundry cover. You’d just bought it when you were called up. It’s in the cupboard.”
He rubbed the worn wool of the sweater, up and down on his broad chest. “I love this old thing,” he said.
“Let’s eat,” Mum said.
“I’m starving.” Patty said. Mum frowned at her. “You know that Daddy’s getting the lion’s share of this, Patricia.”
“Don’t answer back. Do you think your father’s been living in luxury? He’s fought a war for you. He deserves the best.” Father laughed.
“I can see you two need nourishment,” he said. “Growing girls.” Later, as they headed up the stairs to bed, Winny stopped her daughters for a moment. She stood below them, so her face was on a level with Audrey’s.
“Try to behave well, girls,” she said. “Your dad needs easing in. We must keep the house nice, and show him how much better is it here than in a horrid war.”
Audrey and Patty nodded, and turned to climb the stairs. Winny stayed at the bottom for a moment before going to join Charlie in the front room, tidying her hair with her hand.
Audrey had been to the pictures with her mother and sister, just before her father’s return. There she had seen a newsreel with a bit about the “homecoming serviceman”. It showed the happiest of families; dad in smart khaki, apple-cheeked mother in a flowery dress and high heels, matching boy and girl, all of them embracing together. The girl wore an impossibly film starrish dress, the pink skirt sticking out like a plate. There was a cottage with roses round the door and a white picket fence.
Mother had put an arm around her and Patty in the dark picture house, and whispered. “We’ll make it just like this when Daddy gets back. We’ll make it perfect.”
Their house had no roses, Audrey thought, and the two children in the picture were perfect, rosy little things. Not like freckly Patricia, not like Audrey herself thin, pale, gangly, nine years old.
Mother gave up her job at the War Bonds office soon after Father got back home.
“The work was a necessity,” she said one morning, “while you were absent.”
“You don’t have to stop on my account,” Father said, leaning across the small table and stroking her cheek. “Don’t think everything has to alter.” He chuckled. “Just act as though I’m not here.” Mother looked shocked.
“What a thing to say! You are home at last, and all you can say is…”
“I didn’t mean anything by it,” he interrupted, calming her. “But like slipping into your routine. You know, stand at ease, carry on.” Patty giggled.
“We want everything to be right for our returning hero,” Mum said firmly pouring him more tea. “Audrey, boil another kettle, will you? This one is getting cold.” Audrey reflected that, before, they’d never minded warm tea.
Winny smiled at Father encouragingly. “Now you’re working again, I can stay at home and make sure this place is just so.”
“But you said you liked the War Bonds?” Father persisted.
“Well, I don’t know about ‘liked’. I think I’ve come to have an understanding of investments. I helped with poster campaigns, and ran local savings weeks in…”
“All over the country,” Patty chipped in proudly. “What did the campaign say, Mum? ‘Lend to Defend’.” Audrey nodded, chewing her bread.
“You said those slogans are branded on your forehead,” she put in.
“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” Mum said. “I was competent at the work.”
“Well,” Dad said, “you can keep on with it, if you like.”
“I’ll see,” she said. “Now, girls, where are your satchels?” Audrey and her sister were not exactly sure how to act around Father. He hurried in through the front door when he came back from work eager to cuddle his children and ask about their day.
Mum would hurry too, taking his coat and settling him in a chair. She would have the girls bringing him a glass of drink, and then shoo them away to do homework or get ready for Brownies.
“It’s very different, having a dad,” Patty said one night as they lay in their beds.
“You’ve always had a father, stupid,” Audrey said.
“I mean, having one in the house. Mum never used to worry about doing homework right now, and it’s all so very tidy. I’m exhausted.” Audrey laughed. Her little sister could be very dramatic.
“I suppose things have to change,” Audrey conceded.
“Does he want everything just so?” Patty asked, yawing, “Like Mum says.”
“S’pose so. Now shut up and go to sleep, will you?”
The next day was Saturday, and warm. Patty wandered out into the backyard and found some bits of wood. Mother had been fretting about the mess, but hadn’t had time to tidy. Audrey watched her sister making a den in a corner, against the fence. After half-an-hour she went out.
“You’ll have to make it stronger than that,” she said. “When you put those roof bits on, it’ll collapse, you know.” Patty peered out from her makeshift walls, scowling.
“I thought you were too old to make dens,” she retorted.
“I’m just trying to help,” she said, but soon they were working together.
When Dad came back from visiting a friend in his regiment, he came out to the back and found them there. It became quite a project. They all got splinters, but the result, Dad said, would have impressed his Sergeant Major.
Audrey and Patty bickered like all sisters. Before the war, Mother had mainly ignored it.
“Go and do that upstairs, silly girls,” she’d say. “I’m not interested.” Nowadays, though, she kept hushing them angrily.
“I didn’t notice what a racket you two make,” she said, “not until Daddy came back. All this sniping at each other jars him. And Patty, go and brush your hair. Your father will be home in less than half-an-hour.”
Patty muttered that she’d never had to brush her hair during the day before.
Father picked up Patty when he came in, and he asked Audrey about school. They were both getting used to him, three weeks down the line.
“Smells good,” he said. “When do we eat, Winny, my darling?”
“Audrey was supposed to clean the pan once Mum had made the mash,” Patty said smugly, “but she said she was too busy. I had to do it.”
Audrey turned on her. “Don’t you dare. You’re always making her do more errands than me. Everyone knows the older one does more, and you did not do the washing up! Mum had virtually finished it when you…”
“Audrey Bains!” Patty put her little hands on her hips. “Making things up as usual. I’m going to tell Mum how you took a whole spoonful of sugar yesterday when there’s hardly any…”
“It was not, not, not a whole spoonful. I already said you hardly know what a spoonful is.”
“I do so. It’s…”
“Be quiet!” Mum’s voice was shrill, and the two girls’ mouths snapped shut. “How could you? How can you keep bickering, making a mess, and fighting over… over sugar, when we’re all trying so hard to…”
“Don’t try so hard, love.” Charlie’s voice was soft, but it cut straight through Winny’s. He was smiling at the girls. “It’s funny, you have to admit, them quarrelling over what a spoonful is!” Winny looked distressed.
“I just want this home to be a nice place for you, and it’s hard, when…”
“Is it?” He stepped towards her and put his arms around her waist. “I like the noise, love, and I’m very happy with everything not being smart. I’m happy with the mess, because it’s my family’s mess. Can you see that?” She looked up at him.
“It should be special, now you’re home. I’ve been looking forward to it.”
“Oh, my Winny, so have I. To the mundane routine, and the children under my feet. Yes, even the bickering. It’s a home, with real people in it, the people I love. It’s what I dreamed of and in my dreams nobody did their hair or ironed anyone’s socks.
“Listen. When I lay awake at night in Italy, I’d imagine the four of us, sitting round the wireless with our shoes off and our cups of tea on the rug. True, I saw two fat little things running about, rather than these two young ladies, but the home of my daydreams was not perfect.”
“Not like the newsreel?” Patty took her father’s hand.
“What newsreel was that, sweetheart?” he asked, letting go of his wife and bending down to be closer to Patty. Audrey and Patty described the film.He laughed. “We saw that too, or something like it, in a cinema on our way home, down in Kent. Goodness knows what made them show us that! My mate Colin, he said to me, ‘I hope my Iris isn’t wearing them silly shoes. We’ve a poultry business to run!” George said he didn’t like the look of the two kids at all, shiny faces like Brylcreem. He said they looked like China dolls. He said his boy always has a big egg on his head from falling out of a tree, and quite right too!”
Mother looked at the floor. He went over and gently tilted up her chin so that she had to look at him.
“I don’t want to live in a newsreel,” he said. “I want to live here.” There was a pause. Then Winny smiled.
“We’d better take our shoes off, then,” she said. “Dr. Morelle’s on in a minute, on the radio.” Patty threw herself at the wireless and switched it on to warm up.
“Shall I bring the last of the Dundee cake, to eat on our knees?” Audrey asked. “We did that before Dad came home.”
“Oh, we did that, your mum and I, before you were a twinkle in anybody’s eye, he said. Then Winny kissed him.
“Welcome home, Charlie,” she said.
Audrey, will you get that?” Winny Bains called to her elder daughter.....Read Detail
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