“Beg pardon, Ma’am, but Mrs Dunk says would you be so kind as to use the area steps, seeing as she’s down below.”
So, even now, thought Lizzie Matilda Clarke, I am to be denied entrance to my old home through the front door.
She nodded abruptly to the maid-of-all-work (her apron none too clean) and, taking Edie and Joe by the hand, stepped back onto the pavement. The front door closed. Above her a trio of sea-gulls jeered. Below, she saw behind the area-railings, a figure flit behind the basement window and then the door opened. It was left ajar.
The children took the steep, stone steps as small children do, pausing on each tread with both feet before making the next descent. Lizzie Matilda had her own skirts and best petticoat to manage. She was not dressed as a servant nor even as the youngest daughter of the house, free to trot up and down the area-steps without a thought. But the children were doing perfectly well and had no need of her hand.
“So here you are, Lizzie.” Her eldest sister stood inside the door. None of the low, afternoon light touched her. The relationship between the sisters, established immutably from childhood, asserted itself. Spirit, a luxuriant head of hair and her father’s favouritism had given Lizzie Matilda the advantage. There was no reason at all why she should surrender it now and certainly not because of this ridiculously contrived snub.
“Yes, Eliza, here I am. Here we are. As you see.” The tone – which their mother would have slapped as ‘lip’ – was the same and Lizzie might have smiled to see her sister’s mouth harden into her line. She kept her own hat on but loosened her daughter’s bonnet and pulled the boy’s cap off, automatically smoothing his unruly, black curls.
“These are my children, Eliza. This is Edith and Joseph. Say, ‘good afternoon’ to your Aunt Eliza, children. You have not met her before…Chichester being such a distance from Brighton,” she added silkily.
The children chanted their greeting and sat tidily at the deal table.
“Is that what you’ve told them, Lizzie?”
“Are we to quarrel, Eliza?”
“Is that why you’ve come?”
“Of course not.”
Lizzie Matilda gave her sister a straight look and saw her for what she was: a middle-aged woman clutching respectability as a substitute for beauty…as their mother had done before. What had she ever conceived for herself beyond their mother’s corseted life, struggling to rise above the stigma of trade by hanging heavy French lace in the bay window and spinning tales of foreign relations of class.
“Of course not,” she repeated. “May I sit down?”
Again, she felt the incongruity of wearing her best clothes in the kitchen but the chairs were worn smooth and there was nothing that would snag the stuff. Eliza Dunk managed a smile. She nodded towards the children, staring at her, solemn-faced, wide-eyed.
“And how old are they now?”
“Joseph is two and a half but he’s been walking for over a year. Edith was four in May.”
“Jane,” said the boy.
“Yes, my darling, ‘Jane’. It’s what her father has always called her,” she explained. “There’s no accounting for it. And Joe has picked it up.”
A smile flicked across her face and the faint line between her brows deepened.
“So your daughter carries her father’s pet-name,” said Eliza Dunk. “And how does The Princess feel about that?”
It was only because that very same question had just occurred to Lizzie Matilda that she was not caught off balance by the waspishness of it. She was able to laugh tightly.
“Goodness, I’ve never made the connection! Do you think all fathers give their daughters – or their pretty daughters – pet-names?”
She reached over to fuss with Edith’s ribbons to avoid her sister’s eye but she knew this silly mothering was what she always did when she was stabbed by her husband’s fondness for his infant daughter.
Eliza Dunk was on her feet and ringing for tea. She knew when she had the edge.
“Now you know how you made mother feel.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Lizzie, we have not spoken to each other for over five years and who knows when we shall again. I see little point in these little twists and turns. You are here now, back home. We might as well speak directly to each other.”
Had she indeed returned to twist and turn? Was she here to re-play the silly dances she had performed for her father, twirling in the remnants of cloth left from his tailoring before she settled down beside him to thread his needles, while his fingers twitched and folded the stuff, seam by seam? ‘My little princess,’ he had called her and she had known even then that it set her apart from her sisters. He had drawn her alone into his kingdom. She alone had been a companion to him, during those long, hours hunched over his treadle. She alone had snuggled against his back when he sat, his old legs crossed beneath him, in the traditional tailor’s position he had learnt as an apprentice all those years before, as he finished by hand with perfect concealed stitches the gentlemen’s jackets and trousers. His sons had never given him the respect or love she had. Adored and spoiled by their mother, once given the chance, they were scarcely at home. And only considered their father when they wanted a new set of cricket whites or something dandy for town. Even Ned, who was her closest in age, had soon outgrown any brotherliness. It was the chores that cut between them for none of the boys was expected to lift a finger (unless it was to black each other’s shoes) in the home. All things domestic, except the most menial drudgery that was for the maid-of-all-work, fell to the three daughters, Eliza, Elizabeth and Lizzie, the youngest, all named after their mother.
But Lizzie had escaped. Her father had anointed her his princess and, whilst his wife held sway over everything else, in this he had his way.
“I need her to thread my needles! How am I to work at the speed I have to work if you deny me my own daughter to thread my needles? Will you do the task? Is that it? Do you wish to sit at my feet instead? Ha? Do you envy my princess her task? Is that it?”
Perhaps it was the habitual solitude and the silence, which enfolded her father for so much of his day, that gave rise to these occasional outbursts. Ned, she remembered, had once said something disrespectful about the old Queen and her widow’s weeds and her father had exploded, cursing his youngest son and beatifying his monarch in equal measure. It was the last time he raged, dying a good ten years before the century.
There must, she thought, have been a powder-keg of words inside him, waiting to be ignited. Instead, it was his own phrase, ‘my little princess’ which had been the spark that lit the slow-burning fuse which still glowed long after his death, which could still inflame her family this afternoon. His endearment for her had set her relationship with her mother smouldering, ready to catch at the slightest cause. It was a spark which her sisters, learned to fan in turn. The irony, of course, was they never understood the more they inflamed the mood, the more ardently her own spirit burned. She could fire up or withdraw into stubbornness; either way, compliance became unnatural.
Eliza had challenged her to speak directly. She was not yet ready. Nor was she sure that these were the terms on which she wished to engage with her sister.
The maid came in, clinking the crockery. There were scones but they were flat and pale and the jam had not been spooned into a clean dish. It was all of a piece to admit her only via the area-steps. The princess had to understand that her rule was over. That an affront had been planned (and she could see her sister Elizabeth’s hand in this) made Lizzie smart with anger but its pantomime nature, the fact that they could only rise to the level of Cinderella, was ridiculous. You cannot un-make a princess by feeding her stale scones.
“Do your children drink milk, Lizzie?”
“As a rule.”
“Will you take tea?”
“How kind! I wasn’t expecting this.”
Eliza shot her a look but Lizzie’s smile held.
“You’re growing so much like mother, Eliza – or as I remember her.”
Lizzie Matilda’s voice was finely honed; it glinted in the afternoon light.
“How is Elizabeth?” she continued brightly. “And is there any news of the boys? I saw Ned some months ago. He was passing through Chichester – some scheme or other, as ever – and deigned to call at The Barracks. I think, to be fair, he also wanted to make Joey’s acquaintance?”
“‘Joey’?” said Edith, trying out the unusual diminutive, recognising something of the falseness in her mother’s voice.
“They are as well as can be expected,” replied Eliza.
“Of course they are.”
“I have never heard them ask after you.”
“Why would they? You’d have nothing to tell them.”
The two women settled their cups in their saucers. Eliza Dunk’s tone, when she broke the silence, was conciliatory.
“Why did you write, Lizzie?”
“It was you who wrote to me.”
“To tell you mother was dead.”
“And had been buried.”
“You didn’t let me attend her funeral.”
“She wouldn’t have wanted you there.”
“I thought it best.”
“I can see that. No, really. I understand. And, perhaps, I wouldn’t have come even if I had known.”
“She had nothing to say to you.”
“Did she ever mention me or the children. I wrote when each of them was born.”
“I know. She showed me your letters. But she never passed comment. You can’t have expected her to…You defied her, Lizzie.”
“Eliza, I always defied her. It was ridiculous that she should choose my marriage to cut me off. She should have been glad to be rid of me!”
But something tore inside her and when she repeated those words, Lizzie Matilda’s voice was less steady.
“She should have been glad to be rid of me.”
“Lizzie, I think, perhaps, whoever you married, she’d have cut you off.”
“She said it was because Joseph was in the army. The ‘scum of the earth’, she called it. She said no daughter of hers…”
“That was nonsense. Dunk was in the navy – ”
“ ‘The royal profession’, mother called it even though Dunk was no officer.”
“Nor is Clarke.”
“But expecting a commission in due course. He’s very well regarded…what did you mean when you said, ‘whoever I married’?”
It was too direct a question.
“I can’t tell.”
“Do you think she wanted to wound?”
“I can’t tell.”
“Or teach me a lesson?”
“I don’t know,” said Lizzie Matilda, turning to her little girl. Tutting, she brushed a crumb from her cheek. She left the jam that Joe had spread around his mouth. What feelings had her mother had for her, her last baby, born to the man she had married more than twenty years before? And, if so, what was the bitter lesson she had wanted to teach her?
“If she could only have seen them, Edith and Joe,” said Lizzie Matilda, quietly. “If she could have seen me with them.”
“What? Then what?”
“She’d have known. That’s all. She’d have known that – whatever it was – I too had become a mother.”
She did not want to stay any longer. They would leave. She would wrap a couple of the meagre scones in her handkerchief for the children to crumble on the train or she would buy them a penny-bun from the tea-shop at the station. But they would not stay any longer.
“Come, my dears, we must catch a train.”
“We shall have to run very fast, mother.”
“Yes, Edith. Let me fasten your bonnet. Now don’t fidget.”
She gave the boy his cap and he tugged it down to his ears. She laughed and re-set it at an angle, rakish.
“He looks like Ned and there’s something of Charlie about the eyes. You’ll not be able to see it. Mothers rarely can. But it’s there. That look the boys had.”
“He’s got their colouring, certainly.”
“‘The little Yid’ they called Ned. And your hair.”
“Perhaps. Edith takes after her father.”
“As did you.”
They left the way they had come, up the area-steps and into the late afternoon sunlight. Eliza Dunk did not wave them off but, when Lizzie turned at the corner to look back at the house one last time, she thought she saw a figure standing at the front window, behind the thick lace curtains.
“I wish my mother could have seen you,” she said under her breath. She paused a moment, aware of the pressure of her third against her stays, then walked her children towards the omnibus.