“Lucy, this is my mother.”
“Pleased to meet you, Mrs Higgins.” Lucy held out her hand. “Albert’s told me all about you.”
“He’s said precious little about you,” was the rather ungracious reply.
“Now then, Ma.” Albert forced a laugh. “You know Lucy works with me in the shop. It’s been eight or nine months now.”
“And who’s going to help you once the two of ye are wed? It’s a wife’s duty to stay home and keep house for her husband.”
“I… We haven’t set a date yet. Albert only asked me a few days ago.”
Even now, Lucy wasn’t really sure how that had happened: one moment, she was crying into Albert’s shirt front as she realised how close she’d come to committing an indiscretion – or maybe something worse – with a man who’d told her he was in love with her; the next, she was agreeing to go to the pictures with him to see the new Leslie Banks film, ‘Cottage to Let’. It had somehow snowballed from there.
“Well, you won’t need time to sew yer trousseau – not with clothes rationing the way it is,” Mrs Higgins said darkly. “I suppose you’ll be moving in here with the two of us once there’s a ring on yer finger.”
Lucy’s heart sank. She hadn’t thought about living arrangements until now; and she definitely didn’t want to spend the next twenty or thirty years living with this sour old woman. For a brief moment, she wondered if it were too late to tell Albert she’d changed her mind. She wasn’t really sure why she’d said yes in the first place – unless it was guilt over what she’d so nearly done.
Nothing had happened between her and Martin Franklin, of course – well, nothing physical. Their lovemaking had been confined to letters: letters that would have scandalised Albert and his mother had they seen them. You don’t know how much I wish that you and I were truly Emma and Rodolphe for then I would be able to tell you how much I adore you and there would be no English awkwardness getting in the way. Her cheeks burned at the memory of the lines she had committed to heart and she felt suddenly faint.
“She’ll be able to help you with the cooking and cleaning, Ma,” Albert said, giving Lucy an encouraging wink.
Mrs Higgins sniffed her disapproval. “I don’t expect either of them’ll be up to much. Girls these days don’t know one end of a scrubbing brush from t’other. What’s yer pastry like, girl?”
“I…” Lucy hesitated. Her own mother did all the cooking at home.
“Ma makes a good fruitcake,” Albert broke in. Was he trying to protect her from his mother’s questions? “At least, she did before rationing.”
“No dried fruit anywhere for love nor money,” his mother agreed, thawing slightly at her son’s compliment. “You’d best sit down, girl. I’ll fetch the teapot.”
They soon settled down into a routine of tea with Albert’s mother every Sunday afternoon. When Lucy asked if they could alternate visits between both sets of parents, Albert proved to be somewhat intransigent. “If we went to your parents, Ma would be on her own,” he said mildly. “We’re the only company she has.”
It was on the tip of Lucy’s tongue to retort that perhaps his mother would have more friends if she were a little less sharp with people, but she resisted the temptation. She couldn’t rely on Albert not to tell his mother things she’d said to him in private, and it wouldn’t do to get on the wrong side of Mrs Higgins – especially if they were going to have to live under the same roof.
From time to time, she thought of her abortive love affair with Martin Franklin and wondered if she had made the right decision. Martin’s letters had been so passionate; Albert, by way of contrast, was solid, dependable and – dare she think it? – boring. Compared to her parents’ marriage, what she had with Albert seemed similar: it was a comfortable rubbing along together rather than the sort of romantic love affair one saw in films. She supposed it was like that for everyone in real life. Books and films were, after all, fantasies.
She raised the subject once with Jean, a former classmate at the girls’ grammar. Jean was engaged too; her fiancé was a lance corporal in the East Lancashire Regiment and she grumbled that Lucy was unbelievable lucky not to have to worry herself sick about Albert being killed before they could get married. “I don’t know what I’ll do if Nigel doesn’t make it,” she said, shuddering at the idea. “The thought of his arms around me is the only thing that keeps me going most days.” She showed Lucy a photograph of a man with a moustache looking rather sternly at the camera. “I know he looks a bit fierce in the picture, but he’s a wonderful kisser.”
Lucy fiddled nervously with her hair. She’d been conditioned by her mother to believe that ‘all that sloppy stuff’ was a waste of time, but Jean seemed to be quite enthusiastic when she talked about it. “Does he kiss you a lot, then?” she asked now. Apart from a chaste kiss on the cheek at the end of the evening when he walked her home after a dance or the cinema, Albert’s lips had never touched her. She’d assumed he was saving the physical side for marriage, but what if he just found her unattractive?
Jean’s face took on a dreamy expression. “When he’s home on leave, he can’t keep his hands off me. He’s like a man who’s been starved of food or oxygen, trying to get as much of me as he can before he goes back to the base. Not that I give him everything,” she added, rather unnecessarily. “You need to keep something for the wedding night. But I can’t see either of us having any complaints when it finally happens.”
Lucy hadn’t thought that far ahead herself. Her engagement to Albert still seemed unreal – as if it were happening to someone else and not her. She couldn’t imagine what being married would be like. Perhaps when this ghastly war is over, Rodolphe will finally be able to marry his Emma… Why had that memory popped unbidden into her mind? Surely it wasn’t the done thing to think of one man whilst engaged to another?
Guilt grew inside her steadily over the following week. Try as she might, she could not forget Martin’s letters and his passionate declarations of love. When Albert left her a message on the counter one morning, asking her to check how many corn plasters they had, she thought wistfully of the way her heart had fluttered every time she had seen Martin’s copperplate on an envelope, and she wondered if she would ever view Albert’s loopy scrawl in the same way.
They were married six months later in the local parish church. She hadn’t wanted a religious ceremony: it seemed disrespectful to God to promise Him she would love Albert ‘forsaking all others’ when she was still secretly pining for a former paramour; but in the end, she had given in and gone along with what everyone else expected: a simple church service followed by a party with sandwiches, sherry and cake at her parents’ house. She was overwhelmed by their neighbours’ kindness – the whole street had pooled their rations to enable her mother to make the wedding cake, not wanting her to have to make do with a cardboard substitute like so many people these days.
“So, Mrs Higgins,” Albert said as the neighbours began to disappear, “I think it’s time I took you home.”
Home. Lucy looked round the room she knew so well – at the faded wallpaper, the shabby armchairs and the oak dining table her grandfather had made for her grandmother – and felt unbearably sad. How could she leave all this behind? From now on, home would be the kitchen and sitting room at the back of the shop and the two bedrooms on the floor above – one of which would be occupied by her mother-in-law. A sense of dread began to worm its way inside her at the prospect of cleaving not only to Albert but his mother as well ‘in sickness and in health’, ‘for better, for worse’.
Mrs Higgins Senior had not stayed for the party, declaring that her Methodist upbringing would not let her set foot in a house that served alcohol. There had only been two bottles in total – “Hardly enough for a thimbleful apiece!” her father had said, laughing – and Lucy had declined the glass offered her (she didn’t like the taste); now she wondered if maybe she should have accepted. She’d heard that drink loosened one’s inhibitions; perhaps it would have made her wedding night more tolerable. It was a warm May night; even so, she found herself shivering as they walked back to the chemist’s shop, carrying the suitcase she’d borrowed from her parents.
“Would you like me to carry you across the threshold?”
His question surprised her. She hadn’t realised he was one for tradition.
“Better not,” she said after a prolonged pause. “You wouldn’t want to set your asthma off.”
Albert fished the Yale key out of his pocket and unlocked the door to the shop. There was no other entrance; the back door of the kitchen led into a tiny enclosed yard.
“It’s just as well we came home when we did,” he said conversationally. “It wouldn’t have done to be out after the blackout.”
“It doesn’t get dark until past 8 o’clock.” Why were they making such stilted conversation today of all days? Had Martin been right when he’d suggested that “English awkwardness” got in the way of passion?
He cleared his throat nervously. “I’d best check the blackout before we go through. We wouldn’t want the ARP warden interrupting us later on.”
She wondered if that were an oblique reference to their wedding night. Was Albert as nervous as she was?
Within minutes, everything was to her husband’s satisfaction. Her husband; she would have to get used to calling him that. “I expect you’d like a cup of tea,” he said as he led her through the shop to the room at the back. It was smaller than her parents’ sitting room and seemed overfull of furniture. The fire smouldered in the grate, the Lancashire airer above it draped with damp undergarments. She averted her gaze straightaway, not wanting to stare at her mother-in-law’s bloomers.
“We’re back, Ma,” he announced.
“So I see. I didn’t think you’d need any supper, but there’s a slice of pork pie in the larder if you’re still peckish.” She addressed the remark to her son, making Lucy feel both redundant and unwanted.
“Lucy’s going to make us a cup of tea. Do you want one?”
“I’ll make my own tea in my own kitchen, thank you very much!” she snapped.
Albert looked helplessly at his wife.
“I’m not thirsty,” Lucy said quickly, not wanting to add fuel to the old woman’s anger. She hung her coat on the hook on the back of the door that led through to the shop, and then she and Albert sat in silence with his mother while the minute hand of the clock dragged along interminably.
When the clock struck eight, Albert’s mother rose to her feet. “I’ll say goodnight, then.” She turned her attention to Lucy. “I’ve put clean sheets on the bed and I’ve cleared some space in the wardrobe. There are a few bits of mine in there as well, but there’s enough room for Albert’s suit and a couple of your frocks.”
“Ma’s given us her room,” Albert whispered. Lucy’s heart sank. She was sure she would be unable to summon up any loverlike feelings lying in a bed so recently vacated by her mother-in-law.
“I suppose we should go up too,” he said at last.
She followed him up the stairs silently, wondering if all brides felt as apprehensive as she did. When they finally reached the bedroom, he paused. “I should have asked you if you needed the privy.”
“I can wait till morning,” she said in a small voice. She was used to an outside lavatory, but she hated going in the dark. You never knew if there were spiders lying in wait.
“I think I’ll go now.” His ears were turning pink. “Gives you a chance to get undressed in private.”
She was relieved to see him disappearing back down the stairs.
Once she had taken her flannelette nightgown from the top of the suitcase, she undressed quickly, not wanting Albert to come in and find her semi-clad. The bed seemed huge compared to the one she was used to; then, as she slid beneath the sheets and blankets, she remembered that Albert would be sleeping there too and that other things would happen – things of a conjugal nature.
She was almost asleep by the time Albert reappeared. Closing her eyes, she listened to the sound of him taking off his clothes and putting on the striped pyjamas she had seen on top of the pillow on his side of the bed.
“Lucy? Are you asleep?”
Suddenly shy, she pretended not to hear.
“Goodnight then.” His feet padded to the light switch beside the door, and then she felt the mattress dip slightly as he climbed in beside her and lay very still, not touching her. For a while, she waited; gradually, his breathing became slower and heavier, and she knew he was asleep.
Five weeks later, she and Albert were still relative strangers in the bedroom. Every night she expected him to make some sort of move, but nothing ever happened. They were like two chess players, she thought: both waiting for the other to start the game.
From time to time, she thought of Martin and then felt guilty. She was a married woman now; romantic feelings were something that belonged to her past.
She had stopped writing to him all those months ago, never replying to the letter that asked her to spend the weekend in an hotel with him. Had he waited there for her, becoming increasingly more frustrated as she failed to materialise? Dear Martin, she wrote in her head, amending it to Dear Mr Franklin – I am sorry to have ceased our correspondence, but I am now a married woman. That was the point at which she ran out of words. She couldn’t admit that her life felt like a living hell now she was forced to learn housekeeping from her mother-in-law.
Perhaps she could have borne it had her husband been more affectionate; but although he slept next to her in his mother’s old-fashioned wrought iron bedstead, there was an invisible wall between them, keeping them chastely apart.
“Lucy! Is that you?”
She had gone into Norchester, the nearest town, to buy Albert a birthday present. The last thing on her mind was Mr Franklin; perhaps that was why she didn’t recognise him immediately but stood blinking in surprise as he greeted her.
“I’m sorry,” she apologised, her eyes raking his hair, his face, his long, lean legs. “I was miles away.”
“It’s good to see you,” he said softly. “I’ve missed you.”
“I’m married,” she blurted out, not wanting to mislead him.
His eyes widened. “Congratulations. Dare I ask who?”
“Albert.” She could not meet his gaze as she said it.
“I hope the two of you are very happy together.”
Was she mistaken, or was that a wistful look in his eye?
“Have lunch with me,” he said suddenly. “There’s a hotel not far from here – the one I was going to take you to before…” He paused.
A meal together wouldn’t be cheating, would it? And it wasn’t as if she and Albert were really married – not if they hadn’t – what was the word Martin had used in one of his letters? Consummated – not if they hadn’t consummated their marriage. In fact, you could say she’d cheated on Martin by marrying Albert.
For a brief moment, she allowed herself to think of what it would be like if she accompanied Martin to the hotel – to the bedroom she was sure would be available and the bed where she might finally learn what it was like to love someone.
And she knew in that moment that she would not be the first girl he had taken to his bed and she would not be the last, and so really, there was no point thinking about it anymore.
She walked away without saying goodbye. Later, she and Albert would go upstairs together, just as they did every night; but tonight, things would be different. Tonight, she would not pretend to be asleep when he climbed into bed, and they would lie and hold each other – maybe even kiss. She would make herself forget the old woman on the other side of the wall, and she would lose herself in the arms of a man who had loved her patiently and waited for her. She had more sense than Emma Bovary; she would value her husband, and they would learn how to make each other happy.