A week to go till Christmas. Such a different Christmas to the one Babs had thought she would have. She pulled her shawl around her and, despite her bulk, quickened her steps. She was on a mission. They needed some holly branches with lots of berries on to decorate the house with.
Getting as far as the barn, she stopped and rubbed the ache in her side. Her body seemed full of aches and pains that had come with being pregnant. The child in her womb kicked as if in protest at Babs standing still. ‘Eeh, lad, behave for once.’ Patting her stomach, she smiled, but the smile didn’t reach her inner self. ‘Well, your da said you were a lad,’ she told the bulk as she rubbed the place where her baby’s foot seemed stuck, causing her discomfort. Somehow, though, physical pain was a relief to her as it bled some of the pain from her soul. Oh, Rupert, I miss you so much.
Putting her hand out to steady herself, Babs reeled at the memory of the awful day when she and Rupert, her doctor husband, were working on the ambulance train in France and came under an attack. A direct hit destroyed many carriages. None of the brave wounded and dying soldiers on board made it and neither did many of her colleagues, including her lovely friend Cath. But worst of all was finding that her darling Rupert had been killed.
Theirs had been an unlikely love. She, a lost soul, had been brought up with her twin sister Beth by the gypsy couple Jasmine and Roman, who’d stolen them from their lovely ma, and Rupert was a man of high birth – the son of an earl.
But then, war was a great leveller and love could conquer any social divide. Not that it had conquered Rupert’s parents, as they’d disowned him once they’d heard about his marriage to her.
The sound of the door to the farmhouse opening cut into Babs’s thoughts. She looked up to see Eliza, her half-sister – the second child Ma had had during the time she and Beth were missing – coming out of the house. Eliza waved. A tentative wave that made Babs realise how unsure Eliza was of her.
Ma had told Eliza from birth about the twin sisters she had and what had happened to them, and had brought her up to love them even though she didn’t know if she would ever get to meet them. Now, suddenly they were here, and yet the happiness Eliza thought they would bring hadn’t arrived with them. Poor girl didn’t know how to be when around them.
‘Eeh, Eliza, lass, you look bonny in that coat. It’s a lovely red, and suits you. Have you come to give me a hand?’
Babs quickly wiped her eyes where tears had brimmed as Eliza came up to her, her stride surer now. ‘Aye, Ma said I was to help you as I knaw where the best places are to find the holly.’
Similar to her and Beth, in that she had the same curly, raven-coloured hair and dark eyes, Eliza’s face was more the rounded shape of her da Tommy, who Ma had married and found happiness with. ‘Well, I’ll be glad to have you along, and you can keep me going by telling me tales about Ma Perkins. You allus cheer me up.’
Eliza’s smile widened. A born teller of funny tales that made you laugh, she was almost fi fteen years old and training to be a baker, though Babs thought when she tasted the cakes Eliza baked that they didn’t tell of anyone who needed training – they were the best she’d ever eaten.
Babs felt her mood lighten as they crossed the bottom field of the farm that Ma and Tommy owned and she listened to Eliza telling of how Ma Perkins wiped the tops of the iced buns. ‘Eeh, never buy one of them. You knaw how they show the dust in the icing if you leave them out? Well, Ma Perkins had some on a stand and they’d been there all morning. I were in the back getting a batch of tarts out of the oven when I heard her say, “Eeh, look at them buns.” I went in to see what was making her cross and caught her licking her finger and wiping the tops of them.’
‘I knaw, Babs. I were that angry I stamped me foot and gave her what for.’
Babs was astonished at this and let out a giggle. From what she’d already been told about Ma Perkins, she thought her a tyrant that you would never challenge.
‘I told her that were a filthy thing to do, and she should throw them away as she’d tainted them. But then I realised what I’d done and trembled with fear. But do you knaw, she promptly put them in the bin and said, “There, does that suit you, Miss Prim and Proper? Well, see if this does: get mixing and make some more!” And here I were about to come home an’ all. Eeh, she’s a one that one.’
Babs burst out laughing. And with the feeling this gave her, her heart lifted. Putting her arm around Eliza, she pulled her to her. ‘Eeh, lass, you’re a card.’
The conversation between them flowed easily after this as they gathered the holly. Eliza was a little chatterbox. ‘Ma Perkins says that the holly being laden with berries shows that we’re to have a hard winter.’
‘Aye, I’ve heard that saying from Jasmine and Roman. The gypsies follow the signs of the earth and they are never wrong.’
‘What was it like living with gypsies, Babs? I knaw I shouldn’t ask and Ma’d skelp me if she heard, but I want to understand how it is that Beth can’t give them up. To my mind they were wicked taking you from Ma. Ma suff ered so much . . . I – I mean, well, I shouldn’t have said owt . . . Don’t take notice of me. Ma said as there’s naw one nosier than I am, and I knaw as she’s right. I seem to want to knaw everyone’s business.’
Again, Babs laughed. ‘You and me both. I’m allus curious as to what’s behind every closed door. Well, I think as you have a right to knaw. You’re having to live with the atmosphere
Beth’s caused as much as me and Ma does.’
‘It just seems funny – naw, wicked – that Beth wants Jasmine and Roman in her life, when it causes Ma so much pain.’
Not wanting to stand up for Beth, as she herself felt cross with her, Babs was still careful not to open the rift wider than she could already feel it was from Eliza’s words. Naturally, Eliza would be cross at Beth. She’d lived with a grieving ma all her life, and now when Ma should be full of joy, she had more heartache to deal with.
‘It ain’t an easy situation, Eliza, but we have to try to see it from Beth’s point of view. Since a very young age, Jasmine and Roman have been the only parents she knew, and they were loving and caring to us.’
‘But you didn’t stay with them, did you? You ran away and tried to find Ma.’
‘I did. But it wasn’t a sensible thing to do. I were only a young girl and I went through hell. Things happened to me that should never happen to anyone, yet alone a young ’un. But I can’t talk of it all, lass. It’s too painful.’
‘But why didn’t Beth leave with you?’
‘Beth was allus the weaker of us two and allus relied on me. She was too afraid to go. She begged me not to. I think after I did, she was loved and given into even more by Jasmine and Roman. After all, the gypsies don’t believe in education, and yet Beth got her wish to have a tutor, and to learn to speak proper, and to take her training to become a nurse.’
‘Aye, and in that she got her punishment.’
‘Eeh, Eliza, you shouldn’t say that, lass. Naw one injured in the war is being punished for owt. Beth were doing a job that took courage and in conditions near to what hell must be like. She were trying to save the lives of our brave soldiers, many miles from home across the sea. That ain’t easy, I can tell you. And she didn’t deserve for that shell to hit the tent she were working in, nor to lose the ability to walk from the injuries she sustained.’
‘Eeh, I’m sorry, Babs. Me feelings were so cross that I let me tongue wag without thinking. Ma says as I’m a one for that an’ all.’
Babs wanted to laugh, but what Eliza had said, despite her apology, hung between them. They were quiet as they walked back across the field.
The weak December sun gave off a little warmth, and was winning the battle with the overnight frost. The ruts in the field were hardened with it, but its white layer was beginning to melt.
‘Babs, I didn’t mean what I said. It really did just pop into me head and out of me mouth. I love Beth. I were just trying to understand.’
Babs found it impossible to be angry with Eliza for long. She smiled at her and accepted the hand Eliza offered. Together they walked hand in hand till they reached the fence. ‘You climb over and I’ll pass you the basket, lass. Then I’ll walk to the gate. I don’t think I can get this bulk over the stile.’
As she climbed over, Eliza voiced something that often occurred to Babs. ‘Twins allus seem to do things together, even if they aren’t with each other. Look at you and Beth, both having babbies, both being nurses, and both having worked in France looking after the soldiers.’
‘Aye, I knaw, even though we spent years apart, our lives have gone like that.’
When she dropped down on the other side of the fence, Eliza became solemn. ‘I were sorry to hear about your Rupert. And now Beth’s Henry is away at war an’ all. He will come back, won’t he?’
‘Aye, he will. He’s not in any danger, thank goodness. Where he is, attached to a hospital in Paris, he’s doing vital work. His research has given him knowledge that will mean that many a soldier will make it home, and won’t suffer the disabilities they would have. He’s a fi ne doctor from what I’ve heard, and I can’t wait to meet him.’
‘He’s lovely. I loved him the minute I met him. He’s posh, but has naw side to him.’
‘Naw, when it comes to us all being in the same boat, we find out that the posh are just like us really.’
They were walking along each side of the fence and had reached the gate. As Babs came through, Eliza said, ‘Babs, I wish your Rupert hadn’t died. I knaw I would have loved him an’ all. Just because you did. And in my book that makes him a lovely man.’
Babs caught her breath and swallowed hard. Before she could say anything, Eliza had dropped the basket and had flung her arms around her. ‘Eeh, Babs, the young ’un inside you makes it hard to cuddle you.’
‘Ha, you can cuddle him an’ all then.’ With this, Babs put her arms around Eliza and held her as close to her as she could. ‘Eeh, lass, it’s lovely having a little sister. I knaw we haven’t known each other long, but I love you as if I’ve known you all me life.’
‘And I love you, Babs. You’re all I dreamt you would be, all them years that I longed for you to come back to Ma.’
This touched Babs, and for the first time she understood how hurt Eliza was that Beth refused to live with them and carried on seeing Jasmine and Roman, who had followed her up to Blackpool from Kent where they and Beth had lived – Beth in her own home that she’d set up with Henry, and they with their wagon parked close by and working on a nearby farm. Now Beth lived in a ground-floor flat in Blackpool, just along the promenade from where Ma had her basketware shop, cared for by the lovely Peggy, when it should have been Ma and Babs caring for her.
‘Babs, is it bad out in France?’
Just as Eliza asked this, Babs caught sight of Phil, the farmhand and son of Florrie, one of Ma’s best friends, coming out of the cowshed, and she knew what had prompted the question. Eliza was sweet on Phil and he on her, and being nearly sixteen, he was talking of joining up. Though he was still too young to be conscripted, age wasn’t a barrier for many young lads who wanted to go to war as the government carried out few checks, or just turned a blind eye to a willing lad’s age, such was the need for soldiers.
‘Aye, lass, it’s bad, but think on, it might be all over before Phil gets the chance to go. And you’re to be proud of him for wanting to fight for us.’
Eliza squeezed Babs harder. ‘Eeh, Eliza, give over! Babby’s protesting at being held so tightly.’
‘Sometimes I feel that scared, Babs, that I want to hug the world and make it safe.’
‘You’ve a lovely soul, lass.’
They stood a moment longer in the hug that was bonding them until the cold began to seep into Babs’s bones. ‘By, the clouds have taken what little sun we had. I’m chilly now, so let’s go inside and start to decorate the living room, eh? Christmas is a time for happiness, and spreading goodwill to all men – we should do that, no matter what’s in our hearts.’
They parted then and walked towards the lovely farmhouse. Covered in ivy, it’s low thatched roof added to the feel of this being a home. And that’s what it was – made so by Ma.
As Babs thought this, Tilly opened the door. ‘Hey, you two, I were thinking of sending a search party out for you. Where’ve you been? You must be frozen stiff.’
‘We’ve been putting the world to rights, Ma, and finding our love for each other.’
‘Awe, me Babs and me Eliza, that’s grand to hear. Come in the warmth, I’ve kettle on.’
Tilly hurried in, but not before Babs saw the tears brimming in her eyes. Babs understood. For she had been through hell just as her ma had, and knew that at moments when things happened that touched you, it was hard to keep strong. Babs didn’t know anyone stronger than her ma. What she’d been through since Babs and Beth’s da died while he was working on building the Blackpool Tower would have floored a lesser woman. For Ma, me and Beth turning up was the salvation she has always longed for, but even more than that, coming just after she’d lost her son, Ivan. A lad I would have loved to have met. Our return home must have been like an answer to her prayers.
With this thought, Babs felt renewed anger at Beth for spoiling that homecoming.
‘You just bristled, Babs, are you all right?’
‘Aye, you knaw, shuddered as if in a temper.’
‘Eeh, lass, I told you that you’ve got a good soul. Well, you’ve got insight an’ all. I had a moment when I wanted to make everything right for Ma. Come on, let’s get this Christmas started, for who knaws what’s around the corner, eh? Maybe sommat’ll happen that’ll open Beth’s eyes and then everything’ll be as Ma would want it to be.’
How Babs hoped that her words would come true. But this morning had been a good start. She and Eliza were true sisters now. This gave her a nice feeling as Eliza said, ‘Aye, I’ve a lot of baking to do, so you and Ma can get from under me feet and do the decorations.’
They were laughing as they went inside and the warmth of the kitchen embraced their joyfulness and love.
Tilly turned towards them from the pot sink where she was stood, holding on to the side as if it would stop her from falling.
‘Eeh, me lasses, that’s a lovely sound.’
‘It’s Christmas, Ma. It gets into all the corners and makes the sad bits happy. Now, I’ve a lot to do. Me cake is waiting to be iced, I’ve bread proving, and I want to make some of them mince tarts for you. Ma Perkins made some the other day and by, they were good.’
‘Well, that’s us told, Babs. I think we’d better leave this baker to it!’
They all burst out laughing, and then spontaneously went into a hug.
‘We’re going to be all right, me lasses.’
‘We are, Ma. We have each other, and we’ll help each other through.’
‘Aye, Babs. We will. And Beth will be here for Christmas day an’ all.’
‘And our Ivan, Ma. He wouldn’t miss a Christmas. He’ll have a lovely time in heaven, but he’ll come to visit us an’ all. I can feel it in me bones.’
Babs’s laughter following this from Eliza nearly split her side. She never thought to laugh again, but this sister of hers came out with such things that tickled you. Her ma was right when she said that Eliza should be on the stage. But all she dreamt of was having her own little cake shop. As they set about their various tasks the mood lifted. Ma began to sing a carol and they all joined in. Christmas was always a healer, and this one, her first back in Blackpool with her ma, was going to do that for her. Babs knew that, and wished for it with all her heart.
She gently stroked her bump. Eeh, lad, we’ll get through all of this, me and you, son. We will. And we’ll never forget your da. He should have been an earl, you know, but he were willing to give all that up for you and me as I’d have never fitted in with his family. Whether you’ll ever knaw your grandparents on his side, I don’t knaw, but you won’t miss them as you’ll have the best of grandparents in me ma and her Tommy, and two lovely aunties in Eliza and Beth an’ all. Then you have an Aunt Molly – well, not a proper aunt, but a grand woman who’s a friend of Ma’s, and all her family. And if God’s willing, and Henry comes home, you’ll have him, and his and Beth’s child will be your cousin. By, we’re going to be all right, you and me. I promise.
The war is over, but will Christmas be enough to bring them together?
The brand new novel by bestselling author Mary Wood, writing as Maggie Mason
'In the grand tradition of sagas set down by the late and great Catherine Cookson ' Jean Fullerton on Blackpool Lass
The war may be over, but for newly reunited sisters Babs and Beth, peace has yet to find them. Having been taken from their mother at a young age and then separated themselves for twelve years, their family has encountered enough pain to last a lifetime.
As the festive season approaches, they realise their struggles are far from over, but if they want to look forward to a happy future together they must work to put the past behind them. Will the joys of Christmas be enough to unite their family once more?
The third and final book in the Sandgronians trilogy by Maggie Mason. The perfect read for fans of Mary Wood, Kitty Neale and Nadine Dorries
Readers love the Maggie Mason's Blackpool sagas . . .
'5 stars - I wish I could give it more. Wonderful read.'
'Another must read book'
'What a brilliant book. I couldn't put it down!'
'I was hooked from the first page . . . this author is a must read'
'A totally absorbing read'