The clatter of falling crockery could be heard from halfway down the road and Agnes quickened her step. She was the clumsy one. She was always dropping things so she wondered who’d be in for a roasting this time. Making her way through the open door of Kingsway Café, she saw the dainty figure of Polly on her hands and knees cleaning up the mess of what looked like meat pie and mash from the linoleum.
“What you done, Poll?” Agnes hurried to take her coat off and tugged an apron from the hook behind the kitchen door. “And where’s George?”
“He had to rush out. His mam took a turn for the worse.” Polly wiped the back of her hand across her brow. “Can you get Mr Tolson another pie and mash while I finish clearing this?”
“You got the luck of the devil, lass. If George was to see what you wasted there… I mean, he’s generous enough, but you know as well as I do that he can’t stand waste!”
“Where’s me dinner?” The old man at the corner table asked Agnes.
“I think you can see well enough, Mr Tolson. It’s all over the floor!” Agnes tut-tutted as she tied the apron strings around her thickening waist. “Don’t fret, I’ll soon get you another plate.” She hurried into the kitchen where Sally was busy plating up another dinner for the old man.
“What’s up with George’s mam?” she asked the cook.
“Not sure, but his sister came in earlier, all out of breath from running, so it must be serious.”
“Poor George. I hope the old lass will be all right.” Agnes took the laden plate and pushed through the swing doors, back into the café. “There you go, Mr Tolson. We gave you an extra bit of pie to make up for the wait.”
“I’d a preferred a bit of a discount on the bill, lass.” The old man looked hopeful.
“Not a chance, love. More than me job’s worth.” Agnes tucked a stray blonde lock further under her hairnet.
“Well, my job won’t be worth much when George finds out about this.” Polly rose to her feet clutching the cleaning cloth in one hand and a bucket in the other.
“No reason he should know, is there?” Agnes raised her eyebrows at her cousin. “I won’t be telling him.”
“You’re a good friend, Agnes, but I might have to leave here anyway before long.” Polly dropped her eyes to the floor and put a hand to her stomach. “George won’t let me stay once he finds out about this bastard little bundle,” she whispered quietly.
“Polly!” Agnes was shocked. She looked closer at the rounded tummy on her cousin’s slim frame and then at the girl’s pink face. Polly’s eyes were huge round pools of green and she hadn’t bothered to tuck her hair inside the net they had to wear in the café. It hung in loose dark curls over her shoulders. Agnes thought about telling her to tuck her hair away, but the younger girl’s face was so full of misery that she didn’t have the heart to tell her off. “What have you done, Poll?”
“I think that’s going to be bloody obvious in a month or so, don’t you?” Polly hurried behind the counter of the small café. “I’ve been a fool and I can’t blame you if you say so, ’cause I know it meself.”
Questions rose quickly to Agnes’s mind, but she kept her lip buttoned. She knew Polly wouldn’t want the customers to know the details of her private business. “What will you do, love?” she asked quietly, steering Polly behind the counter where they could talk with a little more privacy. “Does Charlie know?”
Polly shook her head. “How can I tell him?” she whispered, turning tear filled eyes to Agnes. She blinked quickly and dashed the wetness from her cheek with the palm of her hand. “His wife just had their third only last month, and on top of that he’s been called up so he’ll be off soon enough and might never come back!”
Agnes had a retort on the tip of her tongue, but she held it back. Polly didn’t want to hear her opinion of Charlie Watson. Goodness knows she’d tried her best through the last year or so to persuade her cousin to stop the illicit affair. She could see that no good would come of it. Charlie was a womaniser who only cared for himself. His poor wife now had three little ones under the age of four, and didn’t seem to have a clue that her husband was a scoundrel. Heaven only knew how many more children he’d fathered around town, and now Polly had added herself to the long line of women this charmer had left with broken hearts and full bellies.
“Might be for the best, Poll.” Agnes muttered. “I mean him going away, not… I mean, I didn’t mean about him not coming back!”
“I know, Agnes. I know.” Polly twisted her hands together. “I should have listened to you. I should have resisted him, but he’s so handsome, and the things he does to make a girl feel that she can’t say no, well, I think you’d know, wouldn’t you?” She smiled wryly at Agnes. “You having your little Harry and another on the way inside the first year of being wed, like.”
“Yes, love, but I have the luxury of a wedding band on my finger to make it right in the eyes of them as point fingers. Not like you, eh?” Agnes flinched inside. She didn’t like to point out her friend’s flaws when she was just as guilty of sins of the flesh. She was lucky, though. She now had a husband, and that made all the difference, no matter that she didn’t love him in the least, and didn’t want the child she was now carrying. As long as things looked right on the outside, folks wouldn’t point fingers and she could hold her head up when she walked the streets.
“Oh, Agnes! What am I going to do?” Polly shook her head.
“You’ll be all right, love. Your mam and dad won’t turf you out, I’m sure.” Agnes lied and promised herself to go to confession first chance she got. She knew Polly’s dad, Bert, wouldn’t stand the shame, and Hilda would go along with her husband’s wishes. Polly would be out on her ear as soon as they got wind of the package in her belly. Agnes would take bets on it.
“I’m ready for some pudding.” Mr Tolson called from his table. “What you got today?”
“I’ll see to him.” Polly hurried over to take the old man’s order, leaving Agnes to serve a customer that just came in.
“What can I get you, Sam?” Agnes asked the tall young man.
“Pint pot of tea, please. I’m spitting feathers I’m that thirsty. This heat’s a killer isn’t it?” He didn’t wait for Agnes to answer his comment on the warm weather, but went on, “And a meat pie dinner, love when you’re ready.”
He took off his cap and Agnes couldn’t help admiring his shock of bright-red hair. “Eeh, I’m always surprised by your hair Sam. It’d look lovely on a lass.”
“What’s up, Agnes? Aren’t lads supposed to have a lovely head of hair?”
“Sorry, Sam, I didn’t mean it like that.” Agnes was mortified and wanted the café floor to open up and suck her down to the basement. “I didn’t mean to offend you.”
“No offence taken, lass. I’m just glad of a bit of conversation with the girl of my dreams.” He winked at her.
“Give over, Sam. I’m a married woman.” Agnes blushed.
“Aye, well, if you weren’t I’d be first in the queue.”
“Don’t be daft, Sam. I think our Polly would be more your sort, she is with most of the lads.” Agnes tried to deflect the flattery.
Sam leant close and beckoned Agnes to lower her head to hear his whisper. “Now I’ll risk giving offence, but not to you. Your Polly’s nice enough, but she’s getting a right name for herself with that Charlie Watson. You’re a fine figure of a woman, and I wouldn’t have to break me neck stooping to kiss you, would I?”
Agnes shot upright. “Sam Wood! You just watch your mouth and remember I’m married.” Agnes tried to be stern, but couldn’t help a small smile creeping through her tightly pursed lips.
“I’ve always had a soft spot for you, Agnes, but you never look the side I’m on.” Sam put a hand to his brow and struck a theatrical pose. “I’m all of a dither when you walk by, but you don’t even know I’m alive!”
“Oh, Sam! You are a one!” Agnes laughed along with his banter. “I’ll get you that dinner.”
“Hurry back, Agnes, so I can look upon your fine face again.” Sam quipped as she hurried to the kitchen.
It felt good to be flattered, even if the lad didn’t mean it. He was always the same when he came into the café, and she enjoyed the innocent banter with him. Sam was a nice lad, and if things were different, maybe she would have considered walking out with him. But things were never going to be different. She was stuck with what she had for better or worse, God help her.
“By it’s hot as hell in this kitchen today. Is it the same out front?” Sally, the cook, asked her when Agnes hurried into the kitchen.
“We’ve got the door open, but there’s not a breath of wind to blow through to cool things down.”
“My, you could cook eggs on them cheeks, what you been up to, lass? Is that colour from the heat or a guilty conscience?”
“Oh, I just a bit of flirting with that Sam Woods out there, nothing a few Hail Mary’s won’t put right.” Agnes lifted a pint mug down from a shelf and began to fill it from a large tea urn. “Another one of them pie dinners, please, Sally.”
“Oh, you make me laugh you Roman Catholics. You can do and say what you like all day long and then a visit to the priest will clean the slate and you’re free to start sinning from scratch the very next minute.” Sally laughed and wiped the sweat from her face before she began to ladle gravy over the corned-beef pie, mashed potatoes and cabbage
“It’s not like that at all!” Agnes protested. “I try to be good, ’cause it’s no fun, having to bare your soul to Father Brennan every week.”
“I doubt you’d have much to confess, Agnes.” Sally smiled softly. “I bet you’ve never done anything worse than say an odd swear word.”
Agnes blushed to the roots of her hair. Everyone thought she was a good Catholic girl. She never gave them reason not to think so, but she knew her heart was not pure. There were some things that even Father Brennan would never know about her. She was damned to spend all of eternity in flames because nothing on this earth would make her confess to her deepest, darkest sins. Her face drained of colour as the memory of her hidden past filled her mind. Trudie, her mother, knew a part of the secret and she took the knowledge to her grave, and was probably burning in hell right now because of it. Her husband taunted her with the part of the truth that he knew, every chance he got, and if she’d realised what a bully he was, she would never have agreed to marry him.
“What have I said? Agnes? You look like you’ve seen a ghost!” Sally peered into Agnes’s frightened, white face.