Monday 21 November 2016

WIP Another Patch for the Quilt that is my Big Novel

Primrose’s Kingdom

                      12th  November 1942

There was no doubt that Primrose Baggot loved men. This was useful because there were many men in her life. She dealt with them in business. She dealt with them in the bar. She had a different banter for every customer. . Maggie, who admired her free and easy ways, thought that Primrose had something of the man about her. She didn’t kowtow to anyone. ‘I’d never fettle for any man,’ she once told Maggie. ‘That’s why I never married. Bed, board and body, that’s all they want. But when they’re that side of the bar they’re canny enough,’
Maggie thought there was no doubt that the men liked Primrose. Her regulars  liked her free and easy, near the knuckle banter and they laughed and joked with her as they never did with their wives, as they sat down to  their Sunday dinner on the dot at three o’clock before they went to bed for a snooze before returning to The Bell at six o’clock on the dot.
Maggie had a suspicion that one part of Primrose’s life with men had been more professional in nature. One night an old man picked up his pint from the bar and leaned forward till his face was close to Maggie’s.  ‘Like our Primrose, do you?’
Maggie smiled. ‘Doesn’t everybody?’
The old man winked, ‘Ye should’ve seen our Primrose before she had the pub. Glamorous as any film star. That Katherine Hepburn was nothing on her. A lady she was, like, but hard with it. She had them queuing up. He slurped his beer. ‘That’s how she got the pub, like.’
Maggie moved down the bar to pull a pint for another customer.
In time Maggie realised that a version of this was still going on at The Bell. In the first week she realised that she wasn’t the only one on the top floor. Her cluttered room took up only half the space. Sometimes when she was settling Alice down at eight o’clock she could hear bangs and laughter through the dividing wall. That night as they were gathering dirty glasses she asked Primrose. ‘Is someone else living in the attic Primrose?’
Primrose hefted a heavy tray onto her hip and drew on her cigarette. ‘Malisi? Well she doesn’t actually stay in the loft. She lives back of Princess street in the old court. She works here at The Bell .’ She smiled, her white teeth beaming in the smoky pub light.
‘Works?’ said Maggie.
‘Works!’ Primroses nodded. She wedged her cigarette in her mouth,  squeezed her eyes against the smoke and put the tray on the bar. See to these, will you? I’m just off to put my feet up.’
After finding out about the woman called Amisi Maggie started to notice men slipping through the door that led to the stairs. One day  as she was coming down the stairs to the bar at twelve she passed an olive skinned girl with a cloud of black hair.She nodded at Maggie. ‘Mornin!’ she said, a slight smile on her face. ‘Off to work? Me too.’ Then she went on up, her gait somehow lopsided.
Maggie nodded at her and later, as she took the tea-towels off the pumps, the image of the girl’s smooth olive face came to her mind. It had been somehow familiar. As she pulled a starter half-pint from each pump, it dawned on her just why the girl seemed familiar. She was like Amoss, Alice’s father. She looked like him. Almond skin; dense black hair, dark liquid eyes. Maggie wondered if she like him was from Egypt. She saw Amoss again, in his sailor’s coat, his sailor’s cap. She watched him again, with his rocking sailor’s gait as he departed from her, down the Quayside to his ship.
And that day in the bar that day she noticed now the men who came in, bought a pint, out it down on the bar and slipped away through the staircase door. Forty minutes later they would come bar and pick up their pint and join their table, as though they’d just been to the toilet. But Maggie knew the toilet was not upstairs. It was across the yard. Maggie looked at the other men at the man’s table. They went on playing their dominoes.
The next night she met the woman agin as she went up with the sleeping Alice in her arms. The woman flashed a smile. ‘Is she yours?’ she said.
‘Oh yes,’ Maggie smiled back. ‘She’s all mine.’ She stopped and pulled the blanket away from Alice’s sleeping face.
The woman put out a slender hand and stroked Alice’s face.  She looked up at Maggie. ‘A beautiful bairn, so peaceful.’ She paused. ‘I’m Amisi. You must be Maggie?’
‘Amisi?’ Maggie frowned over the name.
‘Egyptian,’ the girl said. ‘It means flower.’
Maggie frowned at her. ‘I met an Egyptian once. His name was Amoss. He was in the merchant navy.’
Amisi smiled. ‘That name means child of the moon.’ She glanced back at Alice. ‘You must be Maggie? Primrose told me about you. Getting out from under the bombs at Shields, like.’
Maggie nodded. ‘Seems like a world away from here. Looks like they’re still getting it in London.
‘My cousin was in Coventry,’ said Amisi. ‘They didn’t half get it.’
Maggie wondered how many babies were born in Coventry, like Alice with the bombs raining down.
‘So you’re working here now?’ said Amisi. ‘Me too.’
‘How do you like it here, then,’ Maggie instantly regretted her slipshod words.
Amisi beamed, ‘It’s all right for the time being. Pretty nice working for meself, I’ve gotta say. Primrose doesn’t even charge me for the room. Really, though, I fancy being in pictures, me. You never know. Mebbe if I were in London. I might just get into pictures.’ She paused, ‘I might just get blown to bits meself, but.’
Maggie wrapped the blanket more closely around Alice.
Watching her closely, Amisi said, ‘Do you like the pictures Maggie? ‘
‘Not since I came here,’ said Maggie,
‘You should get yourself there. There’s everything there, in a film. War, love, life death, murder, crime. They are just like real. That’s what I want to do. To be in pictures. I might just do it. This man gave me an address to send my photos too.’ She turned and made her way further up the stairs. ‘Nice to meet you Maggie.’ And then went on singing. My darling, hold me tight and whisper to me, Then soft through the starry night I hear a rhapsody.

When Maggie got there the bar was full, but the noise was down to a murmur. There was no loud, deep chatter, no clink of glasses. Primrose’s corsets creaked as she stretched up to turn on the beautiful polished radio lodged safely behind the bar. A few squeaks and whines exploded from the wireless and the bar fell silent. Then a voice boomed out. This is the BBC news and this is Alvar Liddell reading it… They listened to the routine, unvarnished news of the war and then a cheer went up as they heard of General Montgomery’s successes at El Alamein. There was another cheer for snippet of news a about a British soldier captured in Dunkirk who had escaped from a prison castle in Germany. The news ended and the hubbub rose again in the bar. At one corner table two old men, who had fought in the trenches on the Somme, raised their pint glasses to the General for sorting out those Huns in the desert,

Alice was whimpering when Maggie got back up to their room after her shift.  She picked Alice up, undid her blouse and held her close to feed her, relaxing now after a hard day.
She was aroused from her own drowsy state by a knock on her door. Still holding Alice, she went to open it but it wasn’t Primrose, as Maggie had expected. It was the girl Amisi, looking tousled but still glamorous in a fine red blouse and a narrow black skirt with a slit above the right knee. ‘Is the bairn all right?’ she said. ‘I heard her crying.’
‘Come in.’ Maggie opened the door wider, ‘She’s fine.’ She sat down on the bed. ‘It’ll take her a little time to settle down again, but she will.’
Amisi sat down on the only chair, an ancient thing with brown velvet cushions and a seat that slid forward and backwards. She pulled off a high-heeled shoe and rubbed the arch of her foot. ‘I was wondering if you’d like to go to the pictures on Saturday afternoon? There’s this American film, Citizen Kane. A customer told me it was the best film ever. He says go and find out a bit about America that’s not about the war.’ She pulled a packet of Players from her sequinned bag and offered Maggie a cigarette,
Maggie shook her head. Soothed by Alice’s contented sucking, she was feeling sleepy. ‘About the pictures, I don’t know if Primrose…’
‘Go on! Primrose is a good sort! She telt me you don’t get out enough. You’ve worked here day and night since you ducked the bombs. I know that.’
Maggie unhooked Alice and wrapped her snugly in her blanket and placed her in her cot.
Amisi stood up and pushed her hands down her thighs to straighten her skirt. ‘Well, better get off home.’
‘Do you live near here?’
Amisi drew on her cigarette and spoke to Maggie through trailing smoke. ‘Yeah, with my old mam and dad. Ancient they are. Me grandparents really.’
‘Don’t they mind that you …’
‘Do what I do? Nah. They don’t know. They think I’m an usherette at the  Tivoli.’ She laughed. ‘They’re very old, like. Mam does know the time of day, but not him. Born underground, worked underground, lived underground. A bit like a little old mole putting out his snout now and then. The money suits them, like. I give them the usherette’s wage and keep the rest.’
‘You keep the money?’
Amisi flashed a smile. ‘Yeah. I’m saving it for when I go to London. That’s where things will happen.’
As she closed the door behind her Maggie wondered how an exotic creature like Amisi was related to Mr and Mrs Mole. It might just be that Amisi had something in common with Alice. And, she thought,  with Maggie herself.

(c) Wendy Robertson 2016

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