© Copyright 2020 by Jilly Allison
Photo by Victor Fortuna at Unsplash.
“ Eh, our Eff, you can’t beat a cup of tea with condensed milk can ya.”
She laughs, “ Nice, bit of lardy cake would do well with it though.”
At the mention of the word’ cake’ an elderly black Labrador snuffles the man's hand to remind him of his presence.
Sitting on a bench gazing out on the North sea, a gentle breeze means they need a coat but its not cold enough for a muffler, they are content.
Little powder puff clouds drift through the azure sky, faintly in the distance they hear a ships horn as it comes in to the Tyne.
This is a good place to be.
It wasn’t always like this though.
Stan (a name given to him for the great Stanley Baldwin, after thirteen children his mother was short on ideas) had been a soldier, Second world war.
Eff (Ethel, always known as Eff) had been the love of his life. Small and dainty, though given to a few extra pounds, even stones, in middle age, with a mop of dark unruly curls and eyes that shone like the blue of the sea; she was his one and only love.
There were no jobs in the North East during the thirties, it was the land of the Jarrow marches, men with the will to work and no work for them to do, so Stan had taken the Kings shilling and gone of to train for war.
Eff, worked in the corner shop, they lived but streets apart and when Stan came home they ‘walked out’ together, went to dances, attended village fetes, and generally got together, they were both ‘chapel’ so there was plenty to do.
Having got a bit ‘carried away’ with themselves one night they got married in a bit of ‘flurry’, their eldest lass was born six months later in the two up two down in Tankerley Street, mam had known the landlord, he was happy to rent to the young couple.
Eff loved it, with a privy down the yard and a tiny scullery she loved her independence, she kept her nets white, windows sparkling and her step well stoned.
Then it happened.
Stan was captured by the Japanese, Eff didn’t know for months whether he was dead or alive.
There was no money, by now Eff had three young ones to care for, she was at her wits end.
Then along came Arthur, confident, attractive, neat trilby, pencil moustache and the blarney of his native Ireland, first he wheedled his way into her bed( she thought he loved her and she was desperate for affection) then came the gifts for the children, and food for the table, she was hooked.
She became a ‘fence’.
Where Arthur got the ‘stuff’ from she never knew, all she did know was that large parcels would be delivered to her back door and she ‘sold them on’ to visitors who came at all hours, Arthur collected his money from her and gave her a cut, enough to keep body and soul together and a bit to spare which she saved.
Her children were the best turned out on the street and she even wore perfume and stockings due to her ‘business’.
Police weren’t a problem to either Eff or Arthur, they had enough to do keeping the peace down at the docks and trying to catch the inevitable looters after air raids.
Eff was convinced Arthur had some ‘friends’ amongst the looters, from time to time nice ‘pieces’ of jewellery came her way, some she kept (for a small donation to Arthur, he was a businessman after all) and saved them in a biscuit tin under the bed for a rainy day.
Of course they were still lovers, she and he were young and there was a war on.
To say both Arthur and Eff had a ‘good war’ would be about the size of it, neither suffered any ill effects and both profited by it.
Then came the armistice, along with a note from the War Office.
Stanley was alive, if not well, he had been a prisoner of the Japanese, worked to a skeleton on the Burma railway and was coming home.
Eff’s business came to an abrupt end, along with her relationship with Arthur, no more money, a small (very small!) army pension, an extra mouth to feed and nothing to do it with.
No wonder Eff was glad of her ‘stash’ in the biscuit tin, it would tide them over, though she could really have done with her little business, rationing was still on!
Seeing Stan for the first time rocked her, skin and bone wasn’t in it, she immediately wanted to feed him up, cautioned by the doctor she had to wait and watch. She fed him nourishing broth, her mams baking (only a little though!) and lived through the nights of horrendous nightmares, it seemed forever till Stan managed to kiss her let alone anything else, she was happy to wait.
Arthur and the business were a long gone memory, she loved, and had always loved her Stan, he was her world.
Whilst Stan had been captive and away from Eff he had done a lot of thinking, a lot of the men he was with could read and write very well, Stan had done the basics at school but now, as he recovered Stan began to read.
Eff for her part was happy to peruse the local library and Boots library for him, at first it was light fiction but then he graduated to wanting to know more.
There was government help available for returning soldiers and with its help he qualified as a teacher along with his health improving by the fifties he was working and loving it.
Eff was amazed and proud, with three children to support she was happy with the cash coming in and even prouder of the little bungalow they’d bought.
Of course it was pristine, apart from the sparkling windows and polished red tiles antimaccassers graced the suite (brylcream was the order of the day for men!) and lace tablecloths stood on her dining table with a vase of flowers.
Stan was also active in the labour party, a local councillor he eventually was invited to become Lord Mayor, Eff was thrilled.
Then came the letter.
We know of your activities during the war, are you sure you want your husband to be mayor? It will cost you, await another letter.
Eff was aghast, she was also very very angry, after all they had done to establish a nice, presentable family, how dare ‘they’, whoever they were.
It couldn’t be Arthur, he’d scarpered back to Ireland at the end of the war and the last she had heard he was doing time after rising in the criminal fraternity of Derry and ordering a man to be killed.
Served him right, any affection she had for him was long gone.
Of course there were many who had benefitted from her ‘war work’ for goodness sake she’d even let them have ‘tick’ when they were a bit short.
Of course there was still the problem of telling Stan, did he need to know even?
Well yes, so one night, along with a ‘stiffener’ of sherry the whole story came out, to be fair to Stan he didn’t bat an eyelid, he knew that whilst he had a lousy war those back at home had been in even straightened circumstances.
But who was the mysterious writer of the letter, should they inform the police, not a good move, he was after all friendly with the Chief Constable through the ‘Masons’ and he still had the mayoral robes in his sights?
Watch and wait became the order of the day, Eff and Stan watched the letterbox like hawks, Stan, now a head teacher went of to work nervous of a ‘phone call from Eff.
Between them they had decided the age of ‘the person’ had to be around their own, probably a woman (most of Effs customers by default had been women) and someone who lived near enough to see the comings and goings in Tankerley Street.
That narrowed it down, Tankerley Street had been bombed early in the war and only left with six houses standing.
After many glasses of sherry and brainstorming it had to be one of the Irish family at 26, they awaited the next letter.
The cost for my silence, for now, is £100 pounds. Leave it in old notes in the ‘phone box’ near the fish shop, 7pm Friday. I will be watching.
My friend my back teeth railed Eff, Stan however planned and stayed cool, he could see the outcome after reading the words
‘for now’, this was not about to end here.
Friday morning came, Eff took the money out of the post office, wrapped it in newspaper and took it to the ‘phone box at the appointed time.
Stan meanwhile had enlisted the help of a’friend’, together they also watched and waited.
Stan and his friend waited in his car, binoculars trained on the ‘phone box, eventually a figure slipped out from an alley and grabbed the parcel of money, quick as a flash Stan and his friend fell on him, covered him with a blanket pushed him onto the back seat, Eff was waiting and the three sped home to the little bungalow at Fieldhead.
After much scuffling and pushing the three pushed the unfortunate victim into the small bedroom managing to wrap rope around him at the same time.
At this point nobody had any idea of who the person was, by default of his clothes they decided it was a man, Stan by now was on his own so to speak, his friend had decided enough was enough and gone home.
Tied to a chair the man was no real problem, still with the blanket over his head he was an unknown quantity.
Eff made a cup of tea, best idea to aid thinking, Stan stuck his head round the small bedroom door and ascertained their victim was still alive, for now, thought Stan.
Eff decided, fortified with tea, that the person now in her spare room must be known to her, it was her problem and she would ‘sort it’.
The shock of his identity would have sent anyone else dashing for the blood pressure tablets but Eff was made of sterner stuff, removing the blanket she stared down at Arthur, he of the suave looks and pencil moustache, neither of which he now possessed.
He was a wreck. A mere image of his former self, years of prison had had their toll, she had no pity for him neither for the past nor how he had come to this pretty mess, she had a life to protect and protect it she would.
No one, least of all Stan new what went on in that room on that night, safe to say that the new garden of the bungalow was still in the process of design and a nice new rock garden was planned for the front, the fact that it was probably a few centimetres higher than expected went unnoticed, Eff was an enthusiastic gardener. Stan was still a fit man and a bit of extra digging did him no harm and he asked no questions about burying ‘things’ in the dark.
Stans friend of course new nothing, the fact that he was a policeman and a fellow Mason kept his silence, Stan of course became Lord Mayor with Eff at his side, they were of course the people they wanted to be. The code of the Masons kept most of the gossip at bay and the happy couple, along with the residents of Midland went on with their lives.
The elderly couple and the black Labrador slowly walked back to their bungalow with its pristine appearance and wonderful garden, tended only by Eff, with a little help from Stan.
had been a truly ‘good life’ as the colourful rock garden
on the front lawn would testify.