Read on for an exclusive extract from ‘A Reunion at Mulberry Lane’ by Rosie Clarke.
Christmas Reunion at Mulberry Lane
Peggy Ronoscki finished washing up the pile of dirty coffee cups, used plates and dishes, sighing as she glanced at the clock on the wall of the café kitchen. It was gone six-thirty at night and she’d been on her feet since six that morning. The work at the little seaside café, situated approximately midway on the coast between Lyme Bay and Torquay, which she ran with her husband, Able, was hard and relentless, especially when her hired help, Masie Bennett, didn’t turn up to wash the dishes and she had to do them as well as the clearing up after the café closed at a quarter to six in the evening.
‘Tired?’ Peggy turned at the sound of her husband’s voice and smiled. However, weary she felt, her spirits lifted when Able walked into the room. ‘I told you not to do it all, Peggy. I would have helped you when I finished wiping the tables and counter.’
‘You work hard enough as it is,’ Peggy said, her eyes caressing him with the deep love she felt for this man. Able had been a serviceman in the American forces during the last war and he’d lost his left arm just below the elbow. After several attempts to wear the prosthetic arm the hospital had fitted, which rubbed his flesh and gave him pain, Able had given up and managed very well with one arm and his stump. She was always amazed at what he could do but tried to avoid asking him to do things that were difficult for him. ‘It’s that girl, Able. I think I’m going to have to find someone else.’
‘Yes, you must, because I don’t want you doing the work of three people,’ Able said and moved towards her. His right arm went around her waist and he bent his head to kiss her on the lips. ‘You should have been home with the twins two hours ago…’
‘It’s all right,’ Peggy reassured him. ‘It’s their youth club night and Sandra took them there. I said I’d be back in time to fetch them and I’ll drive you home first. Then I’ll go around to the club and collect them. I’ve got nearly an hour before they’ll be ready to leave…’
Sandra Brooks was their nearest neighbour to the cottage and had turned out to be a good friend for Peggy and the children since their move to the cottage in Devon. She really didn’t know how she would have managed without her.
Peggy did her early-morning cooking at home, leaving her husband to transport it in tins to the café; Able opened up and she joined him after giving the twins their breakfast and dropping them at school. Sandra had quickly realised it was difficult for Peggy to fetch her children after school and had offered to fetch them with her own two if Peggy was delayed. The two women drank coffee in each other’s houses and exchanged recipes, inviting one another to lunch or dinner whenever they had time, which wasn’t often because they were all busy. Sandra worked a few hours as her husband’s secretary when not looking after her children or cleaning house, but she still had more free time than Peggy.
‘At least you don’t have to cook for us when we get back,’ Able said. ‘The twins love coming here for their tea even though they often eat the same things as you make them at home…’
‘That’s kids,’ Peggy said fondly, thinking of Fay and Freddie, two very different characters although born only minutes apart.
Now it was November 1949 and they were a few months away from their ninth birthdays, they were eagerly looking forward to Christmas, full of life and fun and often into mischief. Peggy’s non-working life mostly consisted of taking her twins to various clubs and events to keep them occupied, but she adored her life. Working every day with Able in their busy café, some twenty-odd miles from the busy seaside town of Torquay, and leaving at about a quarter to four to meet the children and take them home for tea kept her busy and happy, though sometimes she felt the work was a little too much.
‘They can choose what they want from the menu and you always let them have an extra slice of apple pie or pancake if they want…’
Sandra often brought her own sons into the café too and gave them their tea. Peggy either refused payment or charged half price if Sandra insisted on paying. It worked for both families and all four children thought it was great, clamouring for Able’s pancakes and Peggy’s delicious apple pie with cream.
‘How can I refuse when I always have double helpings?’ Able said with a wicked gleam in his eyes. ‘I’ve always loved your pies, Peggy, especially the apple ones with cream or custard.’
‘During the war you were lucky to get either cream or custard,’ Peggy said and a shadow passed over her pretty face. Now into her late forties, she still looked youthful – Able told her she didn’t seem a day older than when he’d first walked into the pub in Mulberry Lane and fallen head over heels for her. ‘At least now we don’t go short of most things… apart from sugar. That’s still rationed and the Government don’t hold out any hope of it coming off just yet, though it’s better than it was…’
Harold Wilson had announced the end to clothes rationing to the nation earlier that year and only a few things were now in short supply. Britain was recovering slowly, though the national debt caused by the long war, when the country had been forced to borrow from the Americans to keep going, was crippling.
‘You’ve found ways round it,’ Able said, smiling easily. ‘You always did, even in the war…’
‘You and your friends helped,’ Peggy replied fondly, because Able had brought her coffee from his base when it was impossible to buy any in London, also tinned fruit, salmon and sometimes sugar. He had a sweet tooth and liked a couple of spoonsful in his coffee.
‘We tried to help in a lot of ways,’ Able said and a shadow passed over his face, because a couple of customers had recently cast aspersions on the help given by the Americans, calling it too little too late in loud voices, which made him seethe, even though he swallowed his anger and wouldn’t let himself be drawn on the subject. ‘Though some folk don’t seem to think so…’
Peggy knew more than most just how much help the American people had given them, because Able had been a General’s aide much of the time and knew about all the secret deals they’d done to keep Britain going through her darkest hours. Some British people even tended to forget that they’d had help from Canada, Australia, New Zealand and many other commonwealth countries, but many more seemed to blame the Americans, though for what she wasn’t sure. Except, that if questioned, they thought that if America had stood with Britain at the start, Hitler would never have dared to do half what he had; perhaps that was right… and yet the help given once committed was invaluable and decisive, bringing the tyrant to his knees.
‘They were just ignorant people,’ Peggy said now, because she knew Able had been hurt by the rudeness of those particular customers, who weren’t regulars but merely touring the coast of Devon. She’d been glad they only visited once. ‘You wouldn’t get that back home in Mulberry Lane. Our customers were friends there and wouldn’t dream of insulting you. We just have to ignore people who don’t understand.’
‘I know, hon,’ Able said, his smile reappearing. ‘We’ve had a good day – clearing three hundred pounds this week so far and we’ve still got Saturday to come…’
Saturday was one of their busiest days. Peggy had two women to help her in the kitchen with the cooking from six until ten in the morning, after which she went home to be with the twins. They usually played with Sandra’s two boys in the garden until Peggy got home, when she took them to the local indoor swimming baths or, if it was too cold for that, they often went to the roller-skating park. It too was an indoor venue and both children were good at it, though Fay was best. She loved skating and wanted to progress to ice-skating, but there were no rinks close enough for Peggy to be able to take her daily and even once a month would be difficult, because they would have to travel into Torquay or Exeter.
Fay had sulked over it on her last birthday when Peggy bought her a new pair of roller skates with smart white leather boots.
‘You know I wanted ice skates,’ she’d told her mother with a pout.
‘I can’t manage to take you to an ice rink,’ Peggy had replied. ‘It would be too far to travel after school, Fay. You like roller-skating and you’re good at it, so why change?’
‘Because ice skating is in the Olympics and roller skating isn’t.’
Peggy had been shocked. Surely Fay’s ambition wasn’t set on becoming a champion ice skater? For a while in the summer her daughter had been entranced by Gorgeous Gussie Moran and the shocking outfit she’d worn for Wimbledon. Created by Teddy Tinling, it had caused a bit of an uproar and so captured Fay’s imagination. Her fascination had faded once the tennis was no longer on the newsreel at the pictures or in the papers.
This latest craze would probably fade as quickly, Peggy imagined. She would never have thought of such a thing when she was a girl. If she got to swim with the school or play netball in the playground, it was as much as she would ever have thought of doing – but Fay was undoubtedly talented and it made Peggy feel guilty that she couldn’t spare the time to drive her daughter to the rink in Torquay several times a week.
‘What about you, Freddie?’ she’d asked Fay’s twin. ‘Do you want to learn to ice-skate too?’
‘No, thank you, Mum,’ Freddie had replied with a loving smile. He was so like Able and he made her heart sing every time he smiled. ‘I like roller-skating but only for fun – I wouldn’t mind some new football boots so I can play in the school team though; mine are nearly worn out…’
‘I’d have bought them before if I’d known,’ Peggy said, feeling regretful, because Freddie asked for so little. ‘Will Christmas do or do you need them now?’
‘My old ones will do for now…’
Freddie never demanded or whined if he didn’t get his own way. He’d been born minutes after his sister, but she was the most demanding of the two. Fay had a temper and if thwarted could be difficult, while Freddie had the sweetest nature and never caused his mother a moment’s worry.
‘I’ll see if I can get them sooner,’ Peggy said. ‘It will mean a smaller present at Christmas, but I’ll see you have them in a couple of weeks…’ And she had. Fay had pulled a face, but Peggy bought her a pair of red button-up shoes and her smile reappeared.
Money was never really tight these days in the Ronoscki household, but Peggy tried not to spoil the children and she liked to save a bit. Although the café was always busy, it cost money for rent, because they’d never actually bought a place of their own, and it was expensive to keep up to date with all the new coffee machines and replacements they constantly needed.
‘We have to keep a shine on the place,’ Able had told her when she’d hesitated over buying new crockery to replace sets that were depleted by chips and cracks. ‘If we give folk odd china, they will think we’re run-down and stop coming. A lot of our customers are youngsters at the weekend and they want a jukebox in the corner. I’ll need at least a couple of hundred dollars to get a decent one shipped over from the States, Peggy, and I can’t raise that overnight…’ Even though he’d lived in England for some years now, Able still thought in dollars rather than pounds and he kept both American holidays as well as British ones. The twins loved it because it meant more treats for them – Peggy might try not to spoil her twins, but Able gave them everything he could. It was surprising, because although he spoiled them, he only had to say no and even Fay stopped plaguing him.
Peggy had raised her eyebrows at him over the jukebox, because in the pub during the war she’d only had to ask one of her older customers to entertain them with a song and Alice would perform one of the old musical hall numbers that were still loved by Londoners. However, the youngsters wanted something different these days. Jitterbugging had begun in the war, brought over by the Americans and developing into the Lindy Hop and the new dances that were all the rage in the dance halls now. Able was on the ball with his ideas, but Peggy hoped he wouldn’t raise the cash for that jukebox too soon. They would never have any peace once that was installed.
Weekday mornings they got older people in for lunch or coffee and teas in the afternoon and they knew most of the regulars by name, but in summer there were lots of tourists from the seaside resort of Torquay, who just came in for coffee and a bun or a snack. That was when they made most of their easy profits, a family-friendly café and that’s what it was, bringing in mums, dads, kids and grandparents.
‘Right, time to go,’ Able said and tried the kitchen door, which led out to the small yard at the back. It was locked and secure. They also had a large store out there, where extra stocks of drinks and foodstuffs were kept, but it couldn’t be accessed from outside, only from the kitchen. The arrangement served as extra security, because Able knew that thieves considered small businesses like theirs fair game. He sold a few cigarettes and sweets from behind the counter and that sort of thing was popular with sneak thieves, but they were less likely to come in through the front door under the glare of a street lamp. The security was one of the reasons they’d decided on the place. ‘Come on, Peggy. Anything else will wait until the morning…’
Peggy’s gaze travelled round the large and spotless kitchen, looking for something she might have missed. The rubbish had all been disposed of in the large bin that the council collected twice a week using a side gate. Peggy used the side door to access it and that had double iron bars across it, because Able considered it their weakest link. Yes, she had locked and bolted it. Everything was done and they could go.
‘Yes, I know… I just hope Mavis turns up tomorrow…’
‘If she doesn’t, she’s on a week’s notice and we’ll get someone else,’ Able said. ‘If we employed an extra waitress, she could help with the washing up if it gets left to you, Peggy…’
Able served most of the customers himself across the counter, with a little help from Peggy who did all the cooking. She started early in the morning, cooking her apple pies, sausage rolls and various pastries. Egg and chips or bacon or other hot snacks were cooked when ordered and sandwiches were made fresh on demand. They also did American-style pancakes with various fillings, which were extremely popular, and omelettes with a mixed salad. Peggy found anything with eggs was popular and thought it might be because for years it had been impossible to get fresh eggs, but now they had a plentiful supply straight from the farm near their home. So, the omelettes, salads, savoury tarts, ham sandwiches and Peggy’s apple pie came top of the popularity stakes, closely followed by Able’s pancakes, freshly made at the counter. On Saturday mornings, the youngsters queued up to watch him toss them expertly with one hand and he was regularly given a round of applause.
The electric mixer Able had bought was a boon to him for making the batter, which he did himself. Peggy removed the blades regularly, replacing them with spares, and washed them so that they were always fresh and clean. It was Mavis’s job to do the washing up, but Peggy helped if she wasn’t cooking and she didn’t quite trust the girl to change the mixer blades often enough. If she was truthful, she didn’t trust Mavis much at all, but the girl had been one of the first to apply and she’d been desperate to get the job, so Peggy had taken her on. She’d had cause to regret it a few times and knew Able was right; they would have to let her go.
April Jenkins was the part-time waitress they employed at their busiest times and to relieve Peggy for a couple of hours in the evening. She also came in for three hours over lunchtime during the week, when Peggy was busy cooking the simple meals that appealed to so many, because the food was always perfectly cooked. Sometimes, Peggy did casseroles, soups and fancier dishes, but they made their money out of the simple food every time. On Saturdays, April worked until four in the afternoon and they had a cook called Mabel who worked from ten to four; the café closing at four thirty. April was reliable and Peggy liked her, but it wasn’t easy to find a girl who wanted to earn her living washing up endless dishes. Yes, there were plenty of people who would reply to any advert for staff, but they didn’t do things the way Peggy liked. She sometimes thought back to the days when Rose Barton had worked for her at the pub in Mulberry Lane, and how much she’d been able to trust the girl, both in the kitchen and looking after the twins.
Peggy had had lots of friends to help her in the pub. Her first husband Laurie had served in the bar of the Pig & Whistle until the war, when he’d gone off to do something secret. It had been the beginning of the end of their marriage and she’d learned to live without him – but she’d always had friends: Maureen and Anne and Rose and Peggy’s own daughter, Janet…
Thinking of her daughter, Peggy frowned. It was nearly a month since she’d seen her and Janet hadn’t been feeling well then. She was recovering slowly after an unfortunate miscarriage. Her first child, Maggie, who was now eight years old and the son of her late husband Mike, was thriving, but Janet had lost her present husband’s child, Harry, soon after his birth and it had devastated them both. Janet had come to stay with Peggy for three months earlier that year to get over it and Peggy had feared that her daughter was in danger of splitting from her husband, but then Janet had pulled herself together and gone home to Ryan.
Things hadn’t been easy for the two of them; Peggy had read between the lines, seeing the signs of tension both in Ryan and Janet. Her daughter was doing her best, but the loss of yet another baby had knocked her sideways and, unfortunately, she’d tended to take it out on her husband. Ryan had been patient and kind, but men wouldn’t put up with a short-tempered, irritable wife forever. Peggy had tried to give Janet advice, but she’d gone into herself and rejected all help.
‘It’s all right for you,’ she’d said accusingly. ‘You don’t lose everyone you love…’
She was referring to the husband, Mike, she’d lost during the war. It had been a terrible time for Janet and Peggy had been so pleased to see her married to Ryan. She’d thought they had a good marriage, and at first Janet had been truly happy, but since the loss of her son and then the miscarriage, it seemed the couple was suffering.
Peggy would have to find time to pop and see Janet again soon. It was an hour-and-a-half drive and she didn’t do it as often as she should – perhaps because Janet wasn’t always welcoming. She’d made her own friends and preferred to spend time with them these days, shutting out her mother’s concern for her – just as she had when Mike died. And there was also Pip, Peggy’s son, and his family to think of.
Pip had taken over the lease of the pub when she’d left London, because he was unable to continue flying as a pilot and although he’d brought his family to her the previous summer, she hadn’t been back to London in a while. Pip didn’t help out in the pub much, because he’d become a designer and now worked for a large company, working mostly from his home and commuting when it was necessary to meet his employers and other members of the design team. His wife, Sheila, ran the Pig & Whistle with help from regular staff and friends, particularly Maureen, and that was in addition to them running the little tea shop in the afternoons, where she also sold cakes over the counter. Peggy thought poor Sheila must be as busy as she was and worried that she might be overdoing things, but whenever she telephoned, her daughter-in-law was always positive. It was Janet who worried her most…
Sighing, Peggy put her worries from her mind as she drove home. Next month it would be Christmas and she could ask Janet whether she wanted to bring her family here or preferred her, Able, and the twins to go there to her lovely house in the country.
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