Irina Appleton sat at the kitchen table, cradling the mug of tea Mabel had made for her. She much preferred tea out of a proper cup and saucer, but thought it wiser not to object, this morning.
‘I’ve been up since six,’ said Mabel happily, hurrying across the kitchen with her clipboard and ticking off some items on the master plan she had pinned to the community’s kitchen notice board. ‘So much to do, so much to do. I don’t know how we’re going to be ready in time.’
Her cropped grey hair flickered from almost black to almost white as she moved in and out of the weak sunshine shafting through the window.
‘Have you had any breakfast?’ Irina asked. ‘It’s going to be a long day. You’d better have something.’
‘No time for breakfast,’ said Mabel. ‘Now, Irina dear, if you could just shift a wee bit, along to the end of the table, it will give me more room…’
‘Yes, of course.’ Irina picked up her mug and moved to the chair at the far end of the table, noticing absently as she sat down that its rush seat had reached the point of no return. Hadn’t she heard something about a new man in the village who could do that kind of thing? She leaned on her hand. Really, she did think she was beginning to get one of her heads.
‘Sorry!’ said Mabel, leaning across her to lift baking tins out of a cupboard. ‘I’ll just set these out for Sally and Olga. They thought they’d work together in here. They’ve divided up all the cooking between them. Of course I would just love to have the time to make some of my famous quiches, but I’m so busy seeing to everything…’
The clatter of the tins was dreadful. I’m probably coming down with one of my migraines, thought Irina. Mabel is a good friend, and a really excellent person, but I do wish she wouldn’t chatter so much.
I wish I could get Irina out of here, thought Mabel. She will be under my feet all morning, getting in the way. It’s not as if I could delegate anything to her, she would just get in a muddle, or leave it half done. You would think that a daughter of Natasha’s would have inherited some of her mother’s talents.
Rubbing her temples, now definitely throbbing, Irina watched Mabel set out the tins and stoke the Edwardian cast-iron range with coke.
The back door was pushed open with a muddy Wellington boot. Gregor staggered in, carrying a large cardboard box filled with vegetables. Irina could see the fronded tops of carrots and three or four big lettuces.
‘Morning,’ said Gregor. ‘Where do you want these, Mabel?’
‘In the scullery, please. Oh, Gregor, your boots!’
‘Sorry. I stamped off what I could, but it’s been drizzling in the night. Ground’s dampish. But it looks as though the clouds are blowing away now. I’ll sweep up the mud in a minute.’
He disappeared into the scullery.
We have been asked if we will take in some refugees for the duration. A Polish family – mother, father and little boy. Mother, of course, says yes at once, although the house is still almost derelict.
‘They will be the first new members to join the St Martins community. This is good. They must come to us at once.’
It is May, 1944, and Irina has been at St Martins for a week, working like a skivvy and wondering whether it is really worth it. She had to get Hugh and Frances away from the bombing in London, but could not bear to send them off into the unknown like the other evacuees. You couldn’t know what sort of a family they might end up with, perhaps really dreadful people, with disgusting table manners and an earth closet in the garden. You heard such tales. And already Hugh, who is five, has started running off to play with any child he meets in the street. So unsuitable. Frances is an easier child, but she follows her brother around no matter where he goes and thinks everything he does is wonderful.
Now Mother and Father have inherited this ramshackle place from some old childless uncle of Father’s that I’ve never even heard of. When Mother offered us a home for the duration I had no idea there would be nothing but primitive plumbing and no electricity. And pigeons nesting in the upstairs rooms. And rats and cockroaches everywhere.
Irina shudders. Her hands are raw with scrubbing down the kitchen and scullery.
What is worse, Mother didn’t say a word in her letter about this ‘community’ they have set up. They have always had these odd, foreign, artistic friends, but at least in London they used to go home at night. Most of the time. I hated it when I was a child. I know the other girls at school laughed at us, and at the way Mother dressed – like an actress. But now eight or ten of these awful people seem to have been invited to live here too. In fact, I think she invited them before she invited us. They have set up some sort of a trust, and it looks as though they will be here permanently. Well, I can put up with it until the war is over and William comes home, then you won’t see me for dust.
Mabel Owens is scrubbing potatoes at that dreadful sink.
On the whole, it was a good idea to bring her. Luckily she’d just finished her teacher training when the house where she boarded was bombed. It seemed providential – just the week before we came down to Herefordshire. She’s a hard worker, I’ll say that for her, and she is good with the children. She can make herself useful around the place for the summer, until she gets a teaching post and somewhere of her own to live. And help keep an eye on the children. This place is a nightmare, with that open well, and broken glass everywhere from old greenhouses and cold frames.
That must be the billeting officer at the back door, bringing the refugee family. I’m glad to see he understands the proper place for them. What peculiar people! As thin as scarecrows and dressed like them too. The coat the man is wearing was quite good cloth at one time, but it’s full of holes now. Probably his master gave it to him when he was throwing it away. The woman looks consumptive. Oh Lord, I hope she isn’t carrying TB. What large, dark eyes that boy has. He doesn’t look – well – normal, somehow. Perhaps he is a bit… How tiresome of Mother. She knows I brought Hugh and Frances here to protect them from just that kind of thing.
The man claims to be a count or some such. What nonsense. He needn’t think we will be taken in by that. I wonder whether he knows that Mother is really a Russian princess, and thinks he can impress her? Mother, of course, is speaking Polish to them, so I can’t understand a word they are saying.
Gregor looks about cautiously. The house reminds him a little of home, but it is not very clean and the garden is horrible, choked with weeds and overgrown bushes where anything might be hiding. He remembers home very clearly, although he was so small when the Germans came and they had to run away into the woods. There is a woman with a round shiny face at the sink. That is probably the cook. And the woman with the cross face sitting by the table – he cannot imagine who she can be. She does not seem to be doing any work, but why is she sitting in the kitchen? Perhaps she is a lady’s maid. And neither of the women curtsy to Mama and Papa as the servants used to do at home. But he does not know if this in done in England. He has been here two months now, living in a camp, but this is the first time he has been inside an English house.
The strange language washes over his head. The man who has brought them talks a lot, and says something about Papa. Count Baranowski, he says. Countess. Gregor. Now there is another lady coming in, with fair hair piled up on her head. She is laughing and holding out her arms. This is certainly the lady, the Russian lady. Gregor pokes the stone-flagged floor with his boot, which is too tight. He doesn’t like the Russians any more than the Germans, but Mama says they are our friends now.
He looks at the lady suspiciously from under his thick black eyebrows, eyebrows which he can see if he frowns hard. He can see them now. She is kissing Mama and Papa. She is speaking Polish!
‘Oh my dears,’ she says warmly, ‘I am so glad to welcome you to St Martins. We are still in a muddle here, but you are home now. This is your home, as much as it is mine.’
Mama is crying, but she is smiling too.
Then the lady kneels down by Gregor, and puts her arms around him. She doesn’t say anything, but she hugs him tight. She smells nice, like the ladies who used to come to dinner parties and balls at home. Gregor is crying into the lady’s dress, making it all wet. He is ashamed of himself.
‘I think it might turn out fine after all,’ said Gregor, prising off his boots and putting them outside on the step. He spoke with the soft broad vowels of the Herefordshire-Wales border country.
He fetched a dustpan and brush from a cupboard under the sink and began sweeping up the clods of earth from the floor. His big, bony hands were ingrained around the fingernails and in the creases of the knuckles with fine white stone dust, and he handled the brush as delicately as his chisels.
‘I thought I might get Nicholas to help me wheel my Venus Rampant out on to the lawn for the party. We could hang a tray of refreshments round her neck, like those girls in the cinema. Make her work for her keep, see.’
‘Really, Gregor!’ said Irina crossly. The least he could do was to take his sculpture seriously. That Venus had been commissioned by a Texan with more money than sense, in her opinion. It might look all right in its ultimate home, some hi-tech mansion, she supposed, all marble and art treasures and security guards, but it simply would not do in the middle of St Martins’ lawn. Certainly not with children about.
Gregor looked up at her sideways under his eyebrows from where he was kneeling in front of the scullery door.
‘We could drape a shawl around her juicier bits, if that’s what’s bothering you, Irina.’
The quirk of his grin was hidden by the corner of the table as he watched the red slowly creeping up her neck. He loved taking the mickey out of Irina. She always rose to it, then struggled conscientiously to keep her temper like a lady. He had no intention of moving the Venus. It would need a fork-lift truck.
‘Now, Gregor,’ said Mabel briskly, ‘stop talking daft and get yourself out from under my feet. Unless you want some breakfast.’
Gregor had minimal cooking facilities in the rooms he had made his own, over the old stable he used as a studio, but he often forgot to buy food or cook meals. When hungry, he would go and pull a few carrots or broad beans from the communal vegetable garden and walk up and down outside eating them raw. Although Mabel treated him with firmness, she could never quite forget the ravenous waif he had once been. About half the time he sat down in the main kitchen with whoever happened to be eating there.
‘I wouldn’t say no.’ Gregor shook the dirt outside the back door and put the dustpan and brush away. ‘But you get on with whatever it is you’re doing. I’ll make myself a good rib-sticking fry-up.’ He opened the fridge and began pulling out eggs and bacon. ‘What about you, Irina? Bit of fried bread? Bacon?’
Irina pulled a woebegone face. ‘No thank you. I think I’m getting one of my migraines. I couldn’t face a thing.’
Mabel, seizing her chance, said consolingly, ‘Oh, you poor dear! Why don’t you just go back to bed for a bit? You know you’ll never shake it off unless you lie down in the dark for an hour or two. I’ll come and see how you are when it’s time to get William up.’
‘I think perhaps I just might,’ said Irina, allowing her voice to tremble a little, bravely. She put her mug on the draining board and left the kitchen with the air of a martyr going to certain punishment.
‘Was that my fault?’ asked Gregor, contrite, throwing food lavishly into the frying-pan. The bacon sizzled, and its tempting aroma filled the kitchen.
‘Oh no, she really can’t cope with today. She’ll be glad of an excuse to lie low for a while. Well, perhaps I will just have a bit of bacon. Fried bread? I shouldn’t really – they say now that it’s so bad for you – but perhaps just half a piece. And an egg. Yes, that would be lovely.’