I wasn’t sure how long I’d been sitting in the tree – I think it was a long time cos my leg was going numb from trying to balance on the branch. I wriggled about a bit and peered through the leaves; the boy was still there. He was concentrating very hard on lining up the tin soldiers. A line of green and a line of blue, opposite each other, ready for battle. His hair was yellow like margarine. Every now and again he would brush it out of his eyes and the sun would catch it, making it dazzle. I didn’t think much of boys, most of them were scruffy and smelly and they laughed too loud and called you mean names when you walked down the street. I knew this boy wouldn’t be smelly or loud, this boy would smell of strawberry jam and lemons and nice things. I wanted to stay there for ever watching the boy. He was wearing a blue jumper and grey shorts. I just knew that if he turned around, his eyes would be as blue as his jumper. He looked older than me but it was hard to tell as I couldn’t see his face. Just then my younger sister Brenda came running down the garden.
‘Maureen,’ she shouted. ‘Daddy says for you to come indoors.’
I put my finger to my lips and beckoned her over. Brenda was six, two years younger than me. ‘Tuck your dress into your knickers,’ I whispered. She did as she was told and I reached down and helped her up into the tree.
‘What are you doing?’ she asked, settling herself on a branch.
‘Shush,’ I said. ‘I’m looking at him.’ I parted the leaves so she could see into next door’s garden.
‘I like him.’
‘Daddy’s made a stew,’ she whispered.
Just then, a woman came out of the house next door. ‘Jack,’ she shouted down the garden. ‘Nelson’s here.’
I tried the name out. ‘Jack,’ I said.
‘Jack,’ said Brenda softly.
I watched the boy run down the garden towards Jack and kneel on the grass beside him. Nelson’s hair was brown, in fact everything about him was brown, including his jumper. Nelson was an ordinary boy. He wasn’t a bit like Jack. He wouldn’t smell of strawberry jam and lemons, Nelson would smell of boy. Anyway, who calls their kid Nelson?
‘And we’ve got bread for dipping,’ said Brenda. ‘Dada told me to fetch you in.’
I ignored her and carried on watching the two boys. They were making noises like guns going off. ‘Bang, bang, bang,’ they went.
‘Surrender or die!’ cried Jack.
‘Surrender yourself!’ shouted Nelson.
I watched as Jack jumped on him and they started rolling around on the grass.
‘The stew smells lovely,’ said Brenda.
‘Go and eat it then,’ I snapped. ‘No one’s stopping you.’
Brenda didn’t move.
Just at that minute Jack’s mum shouted from the back door. ‘Lunch is ready, boys.’
I watched as they left the soldiers and ran into the house, jostling each other and throwing punches. It felt as if the sun had gone out. I felt as abandoned as the toy soldiers lying in the mud.
‘Now, where are my girls?’ It was Daddy come looking for us.
‘Is that two little birds up in that tree or is it my angels?’
Brenda started climbing down. ‘It’s not birds, Dada, it’s me and Maureen.’
‘Well, so it is,’ he said, scooping her up into his arms.
I jumped down and ran to him.
‘Daddy,’ I whispered.
He crouched down so that he was on my level. ‘What is it, darlin’?’
I cupped my hands around his ear. His cheek felt warm and bristly and he smelled of Senior Service and the margarine he smoothed on his hair to make it shine.
‘He’s wonderful,’ I whispered into his ear.
‘And who would that be?’
‘It’s the boy,’ said Brenda, very seriously. ‘Maureen likes watching the boy.’
‘A boy, eh? Aren’t you going to be your daddy’s sweet face any more?’
‘His name’s Jack, Daddy.’
Daddy nodded. ‘Well, I hope he’s got good prospects.’
‘Well, I hope he’s got a good job and he can support you properly.’
‘He’s just a boy, Daddy. I don’t think he’s got a job,’ I said.
‘He’ll have to get one at once then, won’t he? Perhaps we should send him down the mines.’
I started giggling. ‘You’re a silly-billy.’
‘My name’s not Billy. Is my name Billy, Brenda?’
‘No, Dada, your name’s Dada.’
‘Go to the top of the class, Brenda O’Connell. Or you can jump on my back.’
Brenda jumped up onto his back and I held his hand as we walked towards the house.
I could smell the stew as he opened the back door and my mouth watered.
‘There’s bread for dipping, Maureen. Isn’t there, Dada? There’s bread for dipping!’
‘Big doorsteps of it. I made it this morning, just for my girls.’
I giggled. ‘No you didn’t, Daddy, you got it from the baker’s shop.’
‘Whoops, you caught me out! You should be a detective.’
Brenda was looking at him, wide-eyed. ‘Can I be a detective too, Dada?’
‘Of course you can, my love.’
‘What’s a detective?’ she asked.
He ruffled her hair. ‘A bit like a policeman.’
‘I don’t want to be a policeman.’
‘Then you won’t be. Now, let’s eat our stew on the back step, eh?’
I didn’t want to eat my stew on the back step – I didn’t want the boy to see me dipping my bread.
I crossed my fingers behind my back. ‘I’m cold, Daddy, can I eat my stew in the kitchen?’
Daddy put his hand on my head. ‘Are you sick, love?’
‘No, just a bit cold.’
‘Then we’ll all eat our stew in the kitchen.’
Actually I was quite hot. The late morning sun streaming through the kitchen window and the stew were making me feel even hotter.
‘You’ve got a red face,’ said Brenda, dribbling gravy down her chin.
Daddy felt my head again. ‘I think that you should stay indoors for the afternoon.’
‘Oh no, Daddy, I’m not sick, really I’m not.’
‘Are you sure?’
I jumped around the kitchen a bit to prove I was OK. ‘See, Daddy, I’m not sick at all.’
‘Well, as long as you’re sure but I think your mum would have kept you in.’
‘But you won’t, Daddy, will you? You won’t keep me in.’
‘You have me wrapped around your little finger.’
I sat back down at the table and spooned the stew into my mouth. I loved my daddy’s stew, it was thick and tasty and lovely. It had bits of meat in it that got stuck between your teeth and big chunks of carrot; blobs of white fat floated on the top. I took a big piece of bread and dipped it into the gravy. Then I watched as the bread turned soft and brown.
‘I like this house, Daddy. Do you like this house?’
‘It’s a fine house, Maureen, andyou and Brenda can have a lovely bath in a proper bathroom. Isn’t that just the best thing?’
‘Oh yes, Daddy, it’s the best thing.’
‘Now, why don’t you two eat up your stew and go and explore your new surroundings?’
Me and Brenda scraped our bowls clean with the bread and ran outside. I climbed the tree and looked into the garden next door but the boy wasn’t there. Maybe he was playing in the street.
I jumped down. ‘Come on, Brenda, let’s explore.’
Grab your copy here:
Brighton 1930: Maureen O’Connell is a carefree girl, but her family is on the brink of tragedy, war is looming and life will never be the same again.
Jack and Nelson have always been dear friends to Maureen. Despite their different backgrounds, they’ve seen each other through thick and thin.
As Maureen blossoms from a little girl into a young woman, the candle she’s always held for Jack burns bright. But just as she’s found love, war wrenches them apart. The man she cherishes with all her heart is leaving.
When the bombs start to fall, Maureen and her family find themselves living in the most dangerous of times. With Jack no longer by her side and Nelson at war, Maureen has never felt more alone. Can she look to a brighter future? And will she find the true happiness she’s dreamt of?
An utterly gripping and heart-wrenching story about the enduring power of love, hope and friendship during the darkest of days. Perfect for fans of Pam Jenoff, Nadine Dorries and Diney Costeloe.
Sandy Taylor grew up on a council estate near Brighton. There were no books in the house, so Sandy’s love of the written word was nurtured in the little local library. Leaving school at fifteen, Sandy worked in a series of factories before landing a job at Butlins in Minehead. This career change led her to becoming a singer, a stand up comic and eventually a playwright and novelist.