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‘May, you know that chap Ben I’ve been telling you about?’
‘He wants to go out with me on New Year’s Eve … but I’ve said I can’t, ’cause of going to your party … ’
‘Well he wants me to go out with him and Daisy and Jimmy as well.’
‘Four of you together?’
‘Yes. So, I was wondering if they could come to your party instead …’
‘So’s you don’t miss the chance of seeing him, you mean?’
‘Well … yes.’
May smiled knowingly. ‘’Course they can come. The more the merrier. Just tell ’em to bring a bottle or two o’ beer. It’ll be nice to have some young faces among all the old fogies. Anyroad, I want to get a good look at this Ben.’
Lizzie’s face lit up. ‘Oh, thanks, May … Thanks … If I can do you a favour some time …’
‘I daresay the time will come.’
She returned to Daisy beaming. ‘May says they’d love to see you.’
Lizzie tried not to raise her hopes too high though. After all, look what happened with Stanley Dando.
Chapter 6 (#u0959affe-76a4-586d-9f5d-9f35f87c69ab)
By New Year’s Eve, a Tuesday, the weather had become settled. A clear, blue sky afforded bright sunshine during the day, but promised a hard frost that night. Eve and Lizzie visited Joe’s house early to help prepare sandwiches and get everything ready for the party. May lit a fire in the front room and cursed when smoke blew back down the chimney, making her eyes run.
‘I should think Father bloody Christmas is still stuck up the blasted chimney,’ she complained, shoving a strand of hair from her eyes with the back of her coal-blackened hand.
‘I doubt whether it’s ever been swept while the Dowtys lived here,’ Eve commented.
Joe had ordered a firkin of best home-brewed bitter from The Shoulder of Mutton and it was standing chocked up on the scullery table with a pudding basin under the tap to catch the drips. There were four bottles of whisky, a bottle of gin and two bottles of port to offer as well, besides a gallon of lemonade.
Lizzie awaited Ben’s arrival excitedly. She hardly knew him. They’d never had a conversation without somebody else being there. But the way he smiled at her, and the honesty and candour brimming in eyes that sparkled whenever he saw her, churned her stomach with longing.
He duly arrived with Daisy Foster and Jimmy Powell shortly after half past eight. Their faces were glowing from their brisk walk in the bitter cold, but they were dressed warmly in good overcoats, hats and gloves. Lizzie introduced them to Joe and he made them welcome. He took their hats and coats and offered them drinks, which Lizzie was happy to serve in the front room as they settled round the fire. Then she, Daisy, Jimmy and Ben, all sat in a group, squashed up together occupying one half of the sofa and an adjacent armchair.
‘It was nice of you to invite us,’ Daisy said to May and Joe equally. She shuffled to get comfortable on the armchair she was sharing with Jimmy.
‘The more the merrier,’ Joe quipped. ‘Where’ve you had to come from?’
It was Ben who answered. ‘Tividale. It isn’t far, but it’s all uphill. Here, Joe … Do you smoke?’
‘Oh, thanks … How long’s it took you to get here?’
Ben tapped the end of his cigarette on the packet. ‘About twenty minutes. It warms you up a treat, though, on a night like this. There’s a tidy frost.’
Lizzie thought Ben looked wonderful. He wore a dark grey suit with a waistcoat, a maroon and blue necktie, and a white shirt with an immaculate, starched collar. His black hair looked even blacker now it had been greased and sleekly brushed and his eyes danced with the reflected light from the oil lamps and candles. He was clean shaven with a clear complexion and his features were fine and masculine. He was possibly the most handsome man she’d ever seen, even more handsome than Stanley Dando, or Jesse Clancey. He was about six feet tall and lean, but with broad shoulders; a picture of vigorous health, and Lizzie couldn’t take her eyes off him. She felt flutters in the pit of her stomach at the prospect of being alone with him. Being in the same room now, but not able to speak or act freely was immensely frustrating. She wanted to manoeuvre herself closer so she could touch him, so he could touch her, either by accident or by design. She wanted to catch the scent of him; see his eyes crease at the corners from close-to when he smiled. And she wondered if he felt the same about her.
He did. He wanted to tell her how lovely she looked in the cream dress with the pale green trimmings. He admired everything about her, not just her looks, but the easy way she seemed to have with people; and, best of all, there was no side on her – she didn’t pretend to be something she wasn’t. For ages he’d wanted to ask her out, but with Fern always at his side it had been impossible.
‘Lizzie says it’s your wedding anniversary,’ Daisy was saying to May.
May linked her arm through Joe’s and glanced up at him affectionately. ‘Twelve months tomorrow.’
‘And it only seems like twelve years,’ Joe chipped in and took a playful slap on the arm for his trouble. He drew on his cigarette and smiled impishly. ‘And afore anybody asks – no, there’s ne’er a babby on the way – but it ain’t for the want o’ tryin’.’
May hit him again, while the men guffawed. ‘You’m gettin’ engaged an’ all, aren’t you, Daisy?’ she enquired, desperate to avoid more embarrassing comments.
Daisy nodded and looked at Jimmy admiringly. ‘We’m thinking about it, eh?’
‘Maybe next year,’ Jimmy confirmed.
‘Any plans yet to get married?’
The couple looked at each other again and grinned self-consciously. ‘Not for a couple of years at least. We want to save up and get some money round us.’
‘That’s good sense, Jimmy,’ Joe proclaimed. ‘You can’t argue with that. What d’you do for a living, mate?’
‘I’m a moulder at a foundry in Tividale – Holcrofts.’
‘I know of Holcrofts.’
‘Ben works there as well. He charges the cupola.’
‘The money good?’
‘It’s all right. We got plenty work, an’ all, eh, Ben?’
‘Plenty,’ Ben agreed. ‘But I want to come off charging. I’m keen to be a ladle man. It’s hard, specially in the summer when it’s hot, but the pay’s better. A lot better.’
Ben was enquiring about Joe’s work when they heard a knock at the back door. It was Tom Dando and Sarah. Sarah came in complaining about the cold. Sylvia would be coming soon with Jesse, she said, when she’d spent half an hour with Ezme and Jack.
‘Help yourselves to drink,’ Joe invited.
Five minutes later Eliza and Ned Bradley arrived, May’s mother and father. They made a fuss of Eve and asked how she was.
‘By Christ, it’s cold enough for a walking stick,’ Ned quipped, warming his hands in front of the fire. ‘It’s icy already. I reckon I’ll be sliding round on me arse all the way ’um.’
‘Like a fairy on a gob o’ lard,’ May suggested.
While Eliza and Ned made themselves known to the folk they hadn’t met before and supped their first drinks, Beccy and Albert Crump arrived. Joe asked what they wanted to drink.
‘A glass o’ port for me, please, Joe,’ Beccy said, rubbing her cold hands.
‘Lemonade if you’ve got it,’ Albert requested defiantly.
‘Oh, have a beer, you miserable old sod – God forgive me for me language,’ Beccy said, casting her eyes upwards. ‘It’s New Year, Albert. Yo’ can’t not have a drink.’
‘Give me a shandy, then, Joe. Anything to save me being nagged to death.’
Sylvia and Jesse arrived. They greeted everyone pleasantly and Jesse gave Lizzie a wink that she thought no more of, but which suggested lots to Ben. Lizzie smiled and introduced her friends. By now the house was crowded and buzzing with chatter and not all the guests had arrived yet. Somebody called for Joe to play his new piano – his pride and joy – and he said he would in a minute.
‘Jesse, fetch your mother to come and play this new piano of Joe’s,’ Albert Crump tactlessly called, his half pint of shandy barely touched. ‘We can’t wait forever for him here.’
Ezme and Jack of course had not been invited; Joe knew how much the woman antagonised his mother. Meanwhile, Daisy and Jimmy had got their heads together and Sylvia and Jesse had moved on.
Ben took a close look at the gold cross and chain Lizzie was wearing, fingering it gently. ‘A Christmas present?’
‘Off Joe and May.’
‘I had a pair of cufflinks – off Fern. Here, look, I’m wearing them.’ He pulled back the sleeve of his jacket.
‘Did she give them to you before or after you fell out?’
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