Under Two Shires Oak

Illustration by Michael Thomas.

Episode 16

Summer 1953

THE pianist in the coffee lounge of the London store interrupted the classical music he’d been playing and launched into the current hit, “How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?”

Francesca fancied he then smiled at her and her mother. Probably thought they looked like they needed cheering up! That was why she had suggested the outing. Her mother had seemed preoccupied lately and she’d hoped a trip round the shops – now filling up, after the war – would do her good. But her mother hadn’t shown much interest in anything lately.

A tug at her neck returned her attention to her baby daughter on her lap.

“Don’t touch, sweetheart.” Francesca gently removed Marianne’s little hand from the precious necklace she was wearing. “This is Mama’s special necklace.”

“I remember,” her mum said, pointing to the three gold oak leaves dangling from the chain round Francesca’s neck, “your father having that made for you. You really missed your friends when we first moved.”

“I still do,” Francesca said, feeling slightly emotional as she thought of how she used to meet her two best friends under the oak tree every day.

“Did I tell you that both Grace and
Evie have daughters now, too? Evie and her husband, Alan, they’re still in Derbyshire . . .”

Although aware her mother already knew all this, Francesca wanted to keep her attention.

“Grace married Phil. You remember awful Lord Alderarche’s stepson? They’re in Yorkshire.” She laughed. “I always thought them falling in love when Grace was in service at Alderarche Hall and eloping was like a fairy-tale romance –”

She broke off. From Grace’s last letter, was it quite a fairy tale? She pushed the question aside. Today was for her mum, to find out what was bothering her.

“Mum, is everything all right with you and Dad?”

Her mother shifted uncomfortably in her chair.

Francesca’s father was already a rich man from his mining interests, then he’d anticipated the demand for new housing after the end of the war, and his building company had become a big player. But now, apparently things were changing.

“The houses just aren’t selling any more. Your father’s not sleeping, not eating. Making himself ill over it all.”

“And you’re the same, worrying about him. Mum, why didn’t you tell me how bad it was before?”

“You’ve enough on your plate with Oliver starting up on his own.”

“Oliver’s doing fine.”

Francesca left it at that. Just after they had met, her architect husband Oliver and her father had crossed swords. Though the men had patched things up for her sake, Francesca tended to avoid discussing Oliver’s work with her parents.

She wondered how she could try to help. If only she could confide in Grace and Evie – they would give her their advice and make her feel better. She loved Oliver with all her heart, but no-one knew her like they did.

“Now, don’t you worry, darling.” Her mum patted her hand reassuringly as they left the store. “We won’t starve! Everything will work itself out.”

Francesca nodded.

But there was more to it than that, she reflected, as she waved her mother’s taxi off. Her thoughts returned to the industry dinner where her father had attacked Oliver. How he loved such occasions! She could see him now, smiling, shaking hands, enjoying his position at the top table. Would he even still be invited if his company collapsed?

Francesca felt tears welling in her eyes. If the firm did fail, it would break
his heart. Her mother was right, they wouldn’t starve. But what would it do to her father psychologically?

She’d seen it happen with Evie’s dad. A miner in the Derbyshire pit Francesca’s family had then owned, he’d been underground the day of an explosion. His physical injuries had certainly healed, but, psychologically, he had been wrecked.

“No point in sitting crying about it, duck,” Evie had said when it had become clear her father would never work again as a miner, nor maybe as anything else. And she hadn’t sat and cried, not Evie! She’d worked on a farm, all hours, to help keep her family going.

Turning the pushchair, Francesca set off towards her father’s office.

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