Today's Reading

CHAPTER ONE

Barking, Essex
England
January 31, 1947


It was dark when Ann left work at a quarter to six, and darker still when she reached home. Normally she didn't mind the walk from the station. It was only half a mile, and gave her a chance to clear her head at the end of the day. Tonight, though, the journey was a cheerless one, for the midwinter cold had burrowed through her coat, setting her shivering, and the soles of her shoes were so worn that she might as well have been barefoot.

But tomorrow was Saturday. If she had any time after queuing up at the butcher, she would visit the cobbler and see what he had to say. She didn't have enough coupons for anything new, and these had been resoled twice already. Perhaps she might be able to find a half-decent used pair at the next WI swap meet.

She turned onto Morley Road, the memory of countless homecomings leading her surely through the night; it would be another few days before there was any moonlight to guide her way. A yard or two more and she was at her front door. Pushing past the curtain they used to keep out drafts, she switched on the wall sconce and was relieved when light filled the vestibule. Last night the power had gone off at eight o'clock and hadn't come on again until the morning. "Milly? It's me," she called to her sister-in-law. The sitting room was cold and dark, but appetizing smells were coming from the kitchen.

"You're late!"

"I think they were running fewer trains than usual. One way to save on fuel, I suppose. And the ones coming through were all jam-packed. I had to wait for an age before I could squeeze on."

"Did you hear it's supposed to snow again tomorrow? Imagine what that'll do to the trains."

"Don't make me think about it. At least not until I've thawed out." Ann hung her coat and hat on the wobbly rack behind the door and pulled off her shoes. "Have you seen my slippers?"

"I brought them in here with me to warm."

She switched off the light and, bringing her bag along, crossed through the sitting room and into the kitchen. Milly was at the
cooker, her attention fixed on the contents of a small saucepan. "I'm just heating up the potatoes and veg from yesterday, along with the last bit of the gammon." She turned her head to offer a quick smile, then bent to open the door of the oven. "Here they are," she said, and handed over Ann's slippers. "Warmed through and not a scorch mark in sight."

"You are a dear. Ooh—that feels lovely."

"I knew it would. What's that you've got there?"

Ann was at the sink, gently unwrapping a small clay pot from a twist of newspaper. Brushing off some loose soil that was clinging to its rim, she lifted the pot so Milly might see the plant within. "It's heather. From the queen."

"The queen gave you a pot of heather?"

"Not just me. We all got one. Well, all of us who worked on those last set of gowns. The ones she and the princesses are taking to South Africa. There was ever so much beadwork, and one of them—she's wearing it to a ball for Princess Elizabeth's twenty-first birthday—was nothing but sequins. Millions of them, it felt like. So she had these sent down from Scotland to thank us."

"It doesn't look like much," Milly said, wrinkling her nose.

"Haven't you seen heather in bloom? It's ever so pretty. And this is white heather. For good luck, one of the girls said."

Milly returned to the cooker and resumed stirring. "I think this is warmed through. Can you set the table while I dish up?"

"I will, and I'll switch on the wireless, too. We can listen to the seven o'clock news on the Light Programme."
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