Maud puts her cinnamon porridge aside.
‘That’s enough of that,’ she says. ‘Now then. Where’s my tea?’
There’s only one photo on the mantelpiece. Her brother, Clive, dead these fifty years, in a bow tie and tux, his hair shining, his moustache a dashing pencil line, leaning back in an ecstasy of expression, a violin tucked under his chin.
‘He could’ve played in an orchestra if he’d had the training. Self-taught, you see. Wonderfully musical. Just a little distracted, d’you know? Oh, he played in jazz trios, dance bands, that sort of thing. He did well enough. I made him a violin once. He said it sounded all right. Now look. I can barely hold a spoon.’
Despite her advanced age and extreme decrepitude, you can still see the woman Maud once was. There’s something very pleasing about the shape of her face, the play of light about her eyes.
‘What did you do for a living, before you retired?’
‘I never retired!’ she says, putting the tea back down. ‘But there was the war to begin with, of course. I went to Cardiff of all places, to teach infants in a little school there. I must have been about twenty or so. Poor Cardiff. It was bombed pretty comprehensively. They had the docks, you see? The town hall came through without a scratch, but the docks and the industrial areas took a pounding. The school I worked in was almost completely destroyed after one raid. The smell of pump water on burnt wood… there’s something particularly dreadful about that. You can smell it for days afterwards. It settles into everything. Still – even though most of the school was destroyed, the annexe was still serviceable so we used that. The next day there was a rumour that the King and Queen were coming to visit the docks. To rally the troops and that kind of thing. I wasn’t convinced, but the children persuaded me to go outside and ask a constable who was on duty in the street. Yes, he said, although I don’t know how you heard about that, he said. It’s supposed to be top secret. Anyhow, he said, yes it was true, the King and Queen are coming down to see the docks and the hospital, and he was there because when they were finished they’d be driving out on this road to the station. Well of course as soon as the children heard that they wanted to come out and wave to them on the pavement. They didn’t have flags, but they had their little white handkerchiefs, and they practised waving those. I thought it looked a little like surrendering, but there you are, I kept quiet about that. It was remarkable, though, how optimistic they were, after everything we’d been through. So eventually the constable said he’d rap on the window when the King and Queen were approaching. And sure enough, the signal duly came, like a pigeon, rap-rap-rapping on the glass. So the children all rushed out with their handkerchiefs and stood on the pavement, waving them like mad, and all these cars and motorcycles came round the corner, and then came to a stop, and then the next thing we knew, the King and Queen were getting out to have a chat with us all, which was absolutely marvellous. It made the papers the next day. The King made a point of saying that after all the suffering and destruction he’d seen that morning, it lifted his spirits to see all these smiling children.
‘It’s odd, what stays with you. I remember one particular bombing raid. It was the middle of the night, and the Germans dropped flares to light up the city. They must have been attached to balloons or something, because they drifted down so slowly, in circles, lighting everything up with such a fierce white light it was like daytime. It was so beautiful, but at the same time, so unpleasant, if you see what I mean? To be laid bare like that, with all those the bombers droning towards you in the distance. I’ll never forget those lights. They reminded me of a chandelier in a dance hall Clive played in once. Bigger, of course. Monstrous! And slowly turning as they drifted down. And there wasn’t a damned thing anyone could do about it.’
Maud puts her cinnamon porridge aside.