Maisie’s Way, page 1
Table of Contents
When Maisie and her daughter arrived in Pendragon Island, a small seaside town in South Wales, it was raining. The sea was hardly visible as they stepped off the bus to search for accommodation near the old harbour, but even though the weather was unkind, they told themselves they were glad of the opportunity to walk and refresh themselves after their journey.
“Isn’t this exciting, little Em?” she asked of her daughter, a sulky girl who was almost fourteen. “A new beginning and who knows what’s ahead of us, eh?”
“I’ll miss everybody, though,” Em said as they stopped to look at the sea. The tide was in, hiding the thick glutinous mud that had silted the once busy harbour. Emily pulled the knitted pixie hood tight around her head and raised the collar of her navy school coat.
Maisie hugged her, her small, deep-set eyes shining as she smiled into Em’s face to encourage cheerful thoughts. Then she turned away to hide the sadness in her own.
The gloom of the November day, made more depressing at the sight of the darkly moving sea, had quickly penetrated Maisie’s heart and dampened her usually lively spirits. An adventure, she had promised her daughter, Emily – usually called Em. This was not a very exciting start. Icily cold. Monotonous rain, nowhere to live, a relatively unknown town and not a friend in sight.
Their first disappointment had been the accommodation Maisie had booked by letter. The run-down boarding house with its worn carpets, shabby paintwork, its unappealing smells of fish, damp, unclean lavatories and stale cabbage. The ineffable sadness of the place had driven her out to seek something better. Now, with most of the day gone, tired and hungry, and each dragging a suitcase, they had still found nothing.
Most of the cafés were closed, but wandering rather aimlessly through the quiet roads as the night began closing in, they found an hotel called Montague Court which had that air of run-down splendour which was likely to be expensive. But, tired and dispirited as they were, Maisie decided they would rest a while and take afternoon tea. As they warmed themselves and ate the small cakes and diminutive sandwiches, she looked at little Em’s expression and decided that, although accommodation here was certain to be costly, they couldn’t wander around any longer and one night wouldn’t break the bank. She called the waiter over and asked about a room.
The waiter frowned slightly and Maisie at once guessed he was doubtful about their ability to pay. Their luggage was ancient; one battered suitcase held with string and a couple of shopping bags. Their clothes were sodden and both had hair hanging down and stuck to their faces in a bedraggled curtain.
“I can afford it,” she said sharply. “We aren’t beggars or thieves!”
“I’m sorry, Madam, I didn’t think so for a moment.” Edward Jenkins called to his sister Margaret who was working in the kitchen and after a muffled conversation, during which Maisie found herself looked over and considered, Edward returned with the news that, “Yes, there is a room available, Mrs er…?”
“Mrs Maisie Vasey,” she said, earning herself another hesitant look. “I shouldn’t have married him, should I? Not with Maisie for a first name. But there you are, your mother chooses your Christian name but not who you marry.”
Edward felt an immediate and inexplicable sympathy for the woman and her child. She didn’t look much more than thirty and underneath the tired expression and the uncared-for hair, he could see she might have once been pretty. Her face was ruddy with the cold but she had small, dark boot-button eyes that looked ready to sparkle with humour. They both wore clothes of good quality but which were out of fashion and ill-fitting. The woman’s hands were rough and worn, as if they had spent a great many of those thirty years employed in heavy work. He would be pleased to help them, make them comfortable. There was rarely any pleasure to be found in what he did.
His plans for his future had been so firm when he had returned from the three years in the RAF. His hopes had soared a million miles away from this, doing a job he hated with people whom he disliked, and supporting a family which was an anachronism. Parents and a sister who thought so little of his dreams they squashed them with words, and with the ease of shattering a watermelon. At least this young woman would show some appreciation for his small services.
The Jenkins family had once owned a large acreage of land and the house, Montague Court, had been the family home for several generations. Now the land was sold and the estate that had once been farmland was now an estate of new houses. He had been forced to give up his dream of being a tennis player after being wounded while serving in the RAF in Egypt in 1951, three years ago. A leg injury had stopped all hope of a sporting career. It was then, lying in the hospital bed while a badly broken leg healed, that he’d accepted that he would have a permanent limp, and had decided on his second plan.
He came out of the service excited with the idea of starting a sports shop in the town. Rachel, his fiancée, was willing to support him while the business got underway, their wedding was planned for the following Spring. It had all looked so good. Enquiries were underway for suitable premises when he arrived home at Montague Court, swathed in bandages, supported by sticks, filled with enthusiasm.
There, he had been met with the news that his fiancée had left him. This was followed by the announcement that, as his father and mother were no longer fit enough to run the house as a restaurant and hotel, it was his duty as the elder child and only son to give up his plans and help the family business.
In his shocked and depressed state of mind his sister Margaret had easily persuaded him that his duty lay in helping to keep the family home afloat.
He had been weak, he accepted that, he had allowed himself to be bullied into forgetting his plans. His future had seemed so rosy but all had been swept aside by fate, leaving him entombed in an anachronistic pile that should have been disposed of many years before.
The worst part of the present arrangement was that he had to work with his sister, Margaret, whom he disliked.
These thoughts were a regular part of his days, reliving the way he had allowed himself to be trapped, by tradition and duty and his sister Margaret’s determination not to lose the family home. Resentment and anger simmered, directed both against Margaret, and himself, for allowing her to convince him where his duty lay, when he was at a crossroads in his life. He had taken the wrong turning and he constantly dreamed of returning and taking another route.
He shook off his melancholy and considered the woman and her young daughter. They were obviously poor, underprivileged by his standards, but, with less to lose they might have had a better life so far than he, despite his family’s past glories.
The room to which Maisie and little Em were led was well furnished and contained one or two beautiful pieces. Maisie wished she’d had the sense to ask the price. The suspicion on the part of the waiter and the kitchen help before offering her a room had brought pride to the fore and pride was an extravagance she couldn’t afford. There was enough money to keep them for a couple of months if she were careful. But a few nights in a place like this and that length of time would be drastically reduced!
Edward carried their cases and she noticed he limped badly. “I’
“It isn’t as bad as it looks,” he said. “Useful for getting sympathy when there’s something I don’t want to do, though,” he confided. Maisie smiled when he hesitated before leaving them, and offered him a tip. He refused, touching the proffered hand and pushing it gently away from him. He clearly liked them and wanted to help.
“Is there anything else I can do to make you comfortable?” he asked, returning her smile. “Oh, I know.” He put a couple of coins in the gas fire and waited until its cheerful glow filled the room with warmth. He waved away her thanks and left them.
Little Em curled up and was asleep in moments. Maisie sat on the edge of the bed and looked at her, wondering whether she had made the right decision. Her daughter looked so… not helpless, but vulnerable. In sleep was the only time she looked even remotely so. So much of her time her face was distorted by a sulky pout. Even now the thin face didn’t look relaxed or peaceful. There was that hint of anger present even in sleep. Sometimes she looked too knowing and too wise to be only thirteen. But little Em had had to grow up fast.
The following morning, after a night during which little Em slept without moving and Maisie lay awake, hungry and anxious, trying to work out what to do next, they dressed in their tidiest clothes and went down for breakfast. Their hair was still wet from washing but it showed its beautiful colour; a deep rich brown that had touches of an auburn lustre when the light caught it.
It was Edward again who served them and, guessing they were hungry, having presumably eaten nothing since afternoon tea the previous day, he had brought extra toast and a second pot of tea.
“Where are you off to today?” he asked them, between attending to other guests in the quiet room. “If you’re on holiday it’s a bit cold for the beach.”
“No holiday,” Maisie told him, as she handed Em the last of the toast. “I’m looking for somewhere for us to live and a job to pay for it.”
“Good luck,” he said. “A pity the weather is so unpleasant.” He gestured towards the ornate leaded window where rain streamed down in an endless river. “You can leave your suitcases with us if it will help?”
“Pendragon Island was a good choice,” Maisie told her daughter. “The first person we’ve met is friendly enough, even if he is only a waiter.”
As they stood to return to their room Edward came to their table with his sister, whom he introduced as Margaret.
“Excuse me if I’m wrong, Mrs Vasey, but are you interested in some cleaning work?” Edward asked.
“I’ll do anything,” she replied promptly. “But I can’t start straight away. I have to find us somewhere to live first, and get little Em settled into a school.”
“There might be a room with the job,” Margaret said cautiously. “It will depend on what you’re prepared to do. I’ll need references, and it will be on trial at first, of course. Just to see if we suit each other.”
“Of course,” Maisie said. She looked at Margaret and decided that it would need a miracle for the cold, rather hostile woman and herself to get along. She turned and smiled at Edward. “Thank you.”
“If you’ll follow me, I’ll show you the room,” Margaret said.
“It’s small,” Edward warned as his sister led them away.
“But adequate,” Margaret said sharply. “Mrs Vasey can hardly expect a mansion!”
“Call me Maisie.”
“Mrs Vasey will do,” Margaret replied.
“My daughter’s Emily but we – I call her little Em.” Maisie added, “on account of my nickname being Em, you see. Em and little Em,” she explained further, but her words extracted no response.
The room was indeed small. No more than seven feet by ten, with two very narrow iron bedsteads on each of which was a rolled up mattress and a couple of pillows.
A wardrobe that Maisie thought looked more like a coffin, and a small cane table stood against a wall, leaving very little room to move.
“If it will suit, I’ll bring you some bedding,” Margaret said, “but first we have to discuss the terms of your employment.”
Little Em went to the window and looked down through the dreary misty rain and saw that there were trees all around. She pointed and Maisie joined her. Em asked, “D’you think we’ll be able to see the sea, Mam?” Asking the question of her mother, she turned to look at Margaret, waiting for her reply.
“I don’t have time for idle chattering,” Margaret said, turning on her heel and leaving the room.
“We’ll find out when the rain stops,” Maisie comforted her daughter.
“No point in leaving home if we can’t see the sea,” Em said.
After a second interview, during which it was made quite clear that she, Margaret Jenkins, was doing her, Maisie Vasey, an enormous favour by taking her on, Maisie accepted the position of cleaner and general help. That she would have to work hard to repay the enormous ‘favour’ was also made clear.
* * *
There wasn’t a lot of time to spare between the various chores Maisie was given, but slowly, over the following week, she and Em found their way around the town and to the beaches cold and unwelcoming in the bleakness of November, but promising delights once summer came to the small Welsh town.
Margaret also left the house every afternoon, purporting to walk and get some fresh air, but Maisie saw her twice in a small café in the town, sitting talking to a man older than herself, but from the way they held hands, more than a friend. She also saw her once, coming back to Montague Court in the man’s car, slipping in through the back entrance.
“So much for fresh air and a change of scenery!” Maisie muttered. She tried talking to the woman hoping her curiosity would be satisfied, but was quickly rebuffed. Not one for social chit-chat was Margaret Jenkins.
An unhappy atmosphere permeated the whole place. Margaret and Edward exchanged hardly a word that wasn’t necessary, and their antagonism towards each other seemed to be the seat of it. Maisie was curious to find out why. She liked finding out about people. It was certain Margaret wouldn’t be the one to tell her. Although Edward might, if they became more friendly and, from the way he helped whenever he could and the way he looked at her, that was very likely. She smiled as she thought of him. He was very nice, even if he did talk a bit ‘posh’.
The parents of Edward and Margaret, Dorothy and Leonard, had never spoken to her, although she had passed them in a corridor several times. Maisie noticed they never acknowledged the guests either, in fact they walked through the house as if everyone else were invisible.
On Monday afternoon, which was supposed to be her half day but which in reality began after two-thirty, she was eating her lunch in a corner of the kitchen when Edward came in.
“It’s cold out but clear and dry,” he said. “Why don’t you go off now and give yourself a bit of fresh air before Emily comes home from school?”
“I can’t,” Maisie said woefully. “Margaret will expect these dishes done and the floor washed.”
“I’ll do it. My plans for the afternoon have fallen through so you go, look at the shops and enjoy a few hours of freedom.”
“She won’t tell you off, will she? The old woman?” She gestured to the vaguely wandering figure of Mrs Jenkins and pulled a conspiratorial face.
“My mother won’t even notice.”
“Your mother? You’re her son?”
“And Margaret is her daughter, yes,” he smiled.
“And the old man in the library?”
“Is my father.”
“And there’s me talking to you thinking you’re a waiter!”
“That’s what I am.” He smiled again, amused by her reaction.
Glad of the excuse to do exactly what Edward suggested, Maisie caught a bus to the main shopping street of the town, and wandered, thinking about the fast approaching Christmas holiday, imagining what she would buy in that far off day when she had money to spare. Walking down a side street she saw a
“That little chap must think he’s in heaven,” Maisie smiled, “living above a sweet shop.”
“His father and mother own it,” the assistant said with a laugh.
“Would you like a cup of tea, Rhiannon?” a voice called and Rhiannon shouted back, “Please, Caroline.”
“They don’t live here,” Rhiannon explained to her smiling customer. “They have a house up in Chestnut Road, but they’re emptying the flat so it can be rented out.”
“I don’t know Chestnut Road,” Maisie explained. “I’ve only been here a few days. I’m working at Montague Court, know it?”
“The Jenkins’s? Yes I know it, although the place is too expensive for me to patronise,” Rhiannon said. “My mother has a café over near the lake, that’s more my style.”
“This flat, I don’t suppose I could have details, could I?” Maisie asked. “To be honest, I don’t intend staying on at Montague Court. I’m paid peanuts by Miserable Margaret because they give us a room. Shylock’s sister we call her. Me and my daughter that is. Oh, I have to go. Little Em’ll be out of school and wondering where I’ve got to!”
“Sorry, what can I get you?” Rhiannon asked, laughing at the words and the panic.
“A bar of chocolate, fruit and nut, it’s little Em’s favourite. Can I come again and ask about the flat?” she asked as Rhiannon handed her the change. “I’ll need a job too, but if I had an idea of the rent?”
“I’ll talk to Caroline and Barry for you. We’re closed Wednesday afternoons but apart from that you’ll find me here every day,” Rhiannon said as Maisie hurried from the shop and up to the bus.
“Who was that?” Caroline asked as she handed Rhiannon a cup of tea.