Attack is the best form of defence, Hattie told herself, and holding out her hand, she marched straight towards Owain. “You must be Owain.”
“Yeah,” he admitted standing upright for some reason. He seemed wary, but he did not reject her outstretched hand. He shook it.
“I’m Hattie Fitzsimmons, but your father calls me Marie.” Already she felt uncertain again. What did Rhys want his children to call her? Miss Fitzsimmons? Or Marie? Then she realised she did not want them calling her Marie. That was Rhys’ name for her; it did not belong to anyone else. So, she added, “why don’t you call me Aunt Hattie like they do down at the Seaman’s Mission where I work?”
“Hattie? What an awful name!” Owain exclaimed, clearing trying to be provocative.
From behind him, a young woman hissed angrily, “Owain! Can’t you be nice just once?!”
“Oh, he’s quite right,” Hattie agreed, smiling over Owain’s shoulder at the plump girl with a round face, flushed from working in the kitchen. She wore a floral-print dress under an apron and was drying her hands on a dish towel. Hattie held out her hand, “you must be Ellen.”
Ellen took her hand uncertainly. Hattie felt the sweat and saw the nervousness in the girl’s eyes. With shock, she realized that Ellen was at least as nervous as she was.
Hattie chattered to put them all at ease. “Hattie is a horrible name. I’ve always hated it, which is why I am very pleased that your father calls me Marie.” She gave Rhys a private, little smile across both his children, and for an instant, they were naked by the fire again. Then Hattie returned to the present, “but Hattie is what everyone else calls me, so it seems the best solution. Unless you want to call me Miss Fitzsimmons, that is?” The question was directed at Ellen.
Ellen was still ‘drying’ her hands on the tea towel. “I don’t know what would be right, Miss,” she admitted self-consciously, with a glance at her father that Hattie couldn’t read.
Hattie shrugged, although she felt anything but indifferent, and suggested, “Well, choose what you like best, but don’t think you need associate ‘Aunt’ with any particular intimacy. Sailors who’ve never seen me before in their lives pick it up from the others and I’m ‘aunt’ to half the navies in the world.”
“Can I come and visit you at the Seaman’s Mission?” Owain wanted to know.
“If you want,” Hattie agreed at once, “but I’d hardly recommend it. It’s a boring place for a boy your age — just a lot of homesick sailors, looking for a hot meal and a place to get away by themselves.”
“Well, away from their officers and shipmates. Sometimes, being with strangers can be less strenuous than being with familiars,” Hattie tried to explain.
“I don’t understand,” Owain persisted.
Rhys was about to tell him to stop pestering their guest and let her sit down, but Hattie was already answering as she moved into the parlour. Ellen rushed back to the kitchen to look after the dinner, and Rhys decided he ought to see about lighting the fire. Hattie was saying, “well, Owain, I imagine it’s not very different from your friends at school. What I mean is, there must be times when you don’t want to do what the others are doing. Maybe they want to go to the flicks, but you just feel like staying at home, or maybe they want to go to an amusement park, but you haven’t got the money for the tickets. Or maybe they want to play football, but your knee is banged up and hurts. If you’re by yourself, you don’t have to explain why you don’t want to do something; you just do as you please.”
To Rhys’ utter amazement, Owain was asking another question. “Do the sailors come from all over the world?”
“Well, not from the Axis countries,” Hattie pointed out.
Owain laughed, and Rhys gazed over at him in wonder.
Soon Ellen called them to dinner. She had done everything she had ever learned to make the table look ‘proper,’ but she had more china, linen and more cutlery than she knew how to set. She had been confused by that, at first, and almost opted for just a single knife and fork. Then she remembered an advert in a magazine, which showed a table set for a fancy dinner. She set the table the way it had been set in the picture.
Hattie supposed she would have praised her even if she had just heaped things in the centre of the table, but she found it easy to praise Ellen’s efforts, even if they were not having a five-course meal with soup, fish and cheese. The meal, such as it was, however, was excellent, and Hattie had no difficulty making her praise sound convincing. By the time she got up to help Ellen with the washing up, Ellen was less tense than she had been at the start of the meal.
“I can manage everything,” Ellen told her, stacking the plates to carry them out.
“I’m sure you can, but why should you?” Hattie countered. “Let me help.”
Ellen backed into the kitchen and started to run the water in the sink. Hattie found the apron she had worn almost a week earlier, just where she had left it, and she put it on. Rhys and Owain cleared the table, stacking the dirty dishes on the kitchen table or counters. “Shall I dry?” she offered.
Ellen nodded and pointed to a drawer that was full of neatly ironed dishcloths.
“Good heavens! Do you iron your dish towels? I’m much too lazy.”
“My Mum said that leaving anything unironed was like not combing your hair, it showed you had no respect for yourself.”
“I see,” Hattie answered, suspecting hostility for the first time, “your mother must have been a perfectionist.”
Ellen stopped washing and looked over at Hattie, apparently surprised by an observation Hattie found rather obvious. “Yes, I suppose she was,” Ellen admitted.
“I suspect that made her a very unhappy person, seeing how much imperfection there is in the world,” Hattie concluded almost flippantly. She had long since taken an intense and irrational dislike to Ellen’s mother based only on Rhys’ rare remarks.
Ellen looked even more surprised. “Yes.”
“How sad,” Hattie declared.
“What do you mean?” Ellen demanded, frowning slightly.
“Well, I mean, she had a wonderful husband with a steady, respectable job and two fine, healthy children. She had every reason to be happy. So many women of our generation didn’t have any of that. Don’t you think it’s sad that she made herself unhappy by her own intolerance of natural imperfection?”
Ellen had never looked at it like that. She frowned with concentration as she countered, “But Dad and Owain and I did disappoint her. I mean, she hated moving all the time. She wanted Dad to go back to where they both grew up and work in the pits. And Owain has never been good at school, while I’m not much good around the house.”
“That’s ridiculous! You’ve taken care of your father and brother all on your own for three years. You cook as well as any restaurant. Good heavens, Ellen, you even have ironed dishcloths!” Hattie held up a stack of the neatly pressed tea towels. She’d expected Ellen to laugh, but the girl only looked solemnly back at her. For a moment, Hattie thought it was hopeless, then she took a deep breath and tried again, earnestly. “Ellen, I want you to try to imagine something.”
Ellen was all ears. She did not even attempt to continue washing the dishes.
“When we found this cottage, it had been standing empty for almost a year. There were cobwebs and peeling paint on the window frames and torn wallpaper and dust everywhere! It took all the riggers of 606 Squadron to get the place cleaned up and a friend of mine and I kept them going with tea and sandwiches – just your typical Salvation Army kind of bread and a slab of ham. That’s what I’m best at. Then, as a gesture of thanks, your father invited me to dinner here.”
“Dad?” Ellen couldn’t believe it.
“But Dad can’t cook.”
“No, he can’t,” Hattie admitted with a smile at the memory. “When I arrived, smoke was seeping out of the kitchen from the burning spam, and the spuds weren’t even peeled yet.” Again, the laugh Hattie had expected didn’t come. Ellen looked horrified rather than amused. “Ellen, don’t you see? It didn’t matter! What mattered was that he wanted to do something special for me. We bought more spam from the pub and I did the potatoes myself, and we had a wonderful evening.” Hattie added in all sincerity. “It was the most beautiful evening of my whole life, Ellen.”
Ellen was still frowning.
Hattie had never encountered anyone so solemn in all her life. Almost in desperation, she tried one last time. “Ellen, your father went to a lot of trouble to do this cottage up for you, but I know it isn’t perfect. There’s that crack in the bathtub for a start—"
“That doesn’t matter!” Ellen told her almost in outrage. “It’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever been in.”
“But Ellen, it isn’t perfect – and I’m sure the dish towels weren’t ironed when you arrived.”
“Of course not! I don’t expect Dad to do that. It’s my job.”
Hattie took a deep breath and conceded that Ellen was beyond her reach. She took a plate that had dripped almost dry on the rack and started to wipe it.
Ellen resumed washing. After a moment she said softly, “I – I feel almost like a – a thief. Like I don’t belong here – or only to do the washing up.” She looked down at her hands, sunk in the dishwater.
“Ellen! What a mad thing to say! Your Dad did it up for you — much more than he did it for Owain. He kept talking about how much you would like this or that. He would never have gone to so much expense or trouble for himself. He has quarters on the station, after all. This cottage is for you.”
“Are you sure it isn’t for you?” the teenager countered, meeting Hattie’s eyes challengingly.
Hattie had never thought of that and started slightly. Ellen saw the surprise and the uncertainty. She looked away and resumed washing. “Up to now, we’ve made do with flats that weren’t half so grand. This is for you because you’re a lady.”
“No, Ellen. No, it’s not.” Hattie turned Ellen to face her. “I have my own flat, and my sister has a house in Portsmouth. This is your home, Ellen.”
“What is keeping you two so long?” Rhys asked, sweeping into the kitchen.
Ellen jumped guiltily and muttered an apology. Hattie smiled at him. “We just got carried away chatting.”
“The fire’s going. Why don’t you leave that for me to do later?”
“We’re almost finished,” Hattie insisted.
But Rhys had her by the elbow and was pulling her away, calling, “come on, Ellen.”
Ellen didn’t follow, and Rhys and Hattie were alone in the parlour. Owain had gone out for a walk before darkness fell. “He loves the sea, Marie. I can’t keep him away from it.”
“I’m so glad.”
“You’ve been a wonderful success.” He was holding her in his arms, content and proud.
“With Owain perhaps. I’m not so sure about, Ellen.”
“That’s just the way she is – reserved and solemn. You said all the right things and I’m sure she likes you. You’ll see.”
“She thinks you did up the cottage for me rather than her.”
“Well, for both of you.”
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